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Cross country wins fourth straight state championship

  • Athletics
Cross country wins fourth straight state championship
The cross country team poses for a photo after their fourth-straight win at state.


HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. – McCallie sophomore Jack Bowen didn't win the TSSAA Division II-AA state cross country meet on Thursday afternoon at Sanders Ferry Park. He finished second, just ahead of senior teammate Hugh Carlson.

But that didn't mean that both of them were anything other than ecstatic over what those finishes helped accomplish.

Jack Bowen with the plaque

"It went exactly like we wanted it to," said Bowen after his school-record time of 15:18.3 led the Blue Tornado to its fourth straight state championship. "This feels really good. It feels even a little better with the school record."

Added Carlson, who finished ahead of Bowen in October's McCallie Invitational, "I'm as satisfied as I can be. I'm honestly surprised. Coach (Mike Wood) kept telling us at the start of school that Brentwood (Academy) was at another level. I'd had a summer job and hadn't trained as much as usual. A couple of us were out of shape. But we were ready today."

Brentwood Academy's Luke Thompson was at a slightly higher level than the Blues, topping Bowen for first place with a time of 15:16.

But McCallie more than countered that by Evan Simpson finishing sixth overall (15:42), Grady Outlaw 11th (16:05), Harry Carter 12th (16:26) and senior Nate Armstrong 13th (16:26.5).

Because all six were in the top 15, they'll all earn All-State honors, the first time the school has had more than five earn that distinction.

"Four in a row," said McCallie headmaster Lee Burns as he soaked in achievement. "It's really exciting to see what a strong program and tradition we have in this sport. And this is such a great group of boys. They represent McCallie so well."

They're piling up cross country titles so well that longtime coach and faculty member John McCall, now semi-retired, said Thursday that he'll have to add the 2022 title to the right sleeve of his custom-made windbreaker because the left sleeve has run out of room, what with the Blue Tornado state title count now at nine for cross country.

And both Carlson and Armstrong expect such excellence to continue following their graduation in the spring.

"Scary to say, but they're going to get along just fine without me," said Carlson, who'll also be an important member of the track team in the spring. "They're going to be better (next year) than we ever were."

Said Armstrong: "I'm looking for a five-peat next year."

Head coach Mike Wood and assistant Rodney Stoker won't discuss next year just yet, but Wood was willing to admit this 2022 team is probably his best yet.

"In 2005 and 2013 we had incredible teams," he said. "But this one's better. Fastest team I've ever had. And they enjoy putting in the work."

Carlson believes the sleep they've begun getting after the work is also a key reason for their success.

"Sleep's our secret recipe," he said. "We're getting nine to 10 hours of sleep a night. We're doing the same amount of running, but we're faster. You have to stay disciplined."

A window into that discipline: When best-selling author David Magee spoke at both McCallie and GPS last week about many of the problems facing our young people these days, he mentioned that today's youth gets two hours less sleep a night than the generation before them. He also mentioned that the average teenager is on their cellphone nine-and-a-half hours a day.

So how much does Carlson estimate he's glued to his phone? "Maybe a three hours a day," he estimated. "And that's only because I do some of my homework on my phone."

One other thing the team has changed this season is where to eat their victory meals. Long wedded to Waffle House, they were set to dine at Cracker Barrel Thursday afternoon.

"Pancakes," said Bowen of his expected order.

"Momma's Pancake Breakfast with all the trimmings," added Armstrong.

"Chicken and dumplings," chimed in Carlson. "And two baskets of biscuits."

And just when was the last time Carlson ate two baskets of biscuits?

"This time last year," he grinned.

Of course, the previous three straight cross country crowns have also led to a Division II-AAA football state title. Armstrong believes Thursday's cross country title can lead to a similar football result on the first Thursday of December inside Chattanooga's Finley Stadium.

"They always look to see how we've done," Armstrong said. "Maybe this will put some dog in them for the playoffs."

According to assistant cross country coach Duke Richey, it already sounds like such encouragement is underway.

"(Offensive lineman) EJ Smith saw me at lunch yesterday and asked if were going to win the state," Richey recalled. "I said, 'We like our chances.' He said, 'Good, that will motivate us.'"

As he prepared to address his team following its victory, Wood was asked what has made this group special these past four years, especially the last three since a senior-dominated squad won it all in 2019, not long before COVID-19 hit.

"It's pretty corny," Wood replied. "But I'd go with brotherhood and love. They've been together three years and they're really close. They spend a lot of time together outside of practice. They just get along so well."

Then Wood broke into a tiny smile. "And it doesn't hurt," he added, "that they have some talent."

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