Cross country team sprints for success at state

Runners fall in line at the start and await the beginning of one of the biggest races in West Tenn. A loud pop breaks the suspense and signals the start of the Cross Country State Qualifiers for the West Tenn. Region. Chaos emerges as hundreds of athletes sprint as fast as they can to secure their spot at the state competition. For many, this would be their last race of the season, but for the determined, this signified just the beginning.

Contrary to its reputation as a solitary, possibly even dull sport, cross country is grounded in the principles of teamwork, hard work and competition. While some runners like the competition or the calmness of running through trails, others think it is a great way to meet new friends who share an interest in running.

“[My] favorite part of running [is] the people you meet,” Russell Wolfe (11) said. “I was at governor’s school over summer, and one of the ways I met several friends was through running. We would see each other at campus and be like, ‘hey, do you want to run together?’”

This year on the team, three runners stood out throughout the season. Wolfe, Gabrielle Shirley (10), and Jarryn Lowe (10) showed extreme determination despite the ramifications of the pandemic; even while dealing with difficult schedules, they stayed focused and committed to the team. However, their path to success was not all the same. Wolfe joined cross country because he came from a family of long-distance runners who inspired a passion for the sport while Shirley wanted some extra time to hang out with friends. Lowe, who also runs track, saw the cross country team as a way to improve his skills and keep himself in shape.

“My coach was telling me [cross country] would make me a better track runner, which is my main sport and what I want to do, and [cross country] is going to help me get to the next level,” Lowe said.

Over years of running, each of these athletes has found their drive and passion to keep running in different places. They rely on their teammates, the goals they have set out to achieve and their love for running. A major element in their success has been having a strong cross country team that always shows up to practice and motivates them.

“Becoming a better person, achieving your goals, reaching your goals [keeps me motivated], and I want to get to the next level,” Lowe said. 

Through training, Wolfe, Shirley, and Lowe have sharpened their abilities as runners and proved to be powerhouses at races. Lowe has won the city championship and broken school records at White Station Middle School, and Shirley to has made her mark in cross country by becoming the fastest girl on the team and winning the regional championships.

“Coach Ernie told me that I had one girl that I needed to really really beat,” Shirley said. “ I really wanted to win for him, for our team and for myself, so I went out and [said] she’s not going to pass me, so she didn’t.”

When Shirley won the regional championship, she got her ticket to state, but for Wolfe and Lowe, it was not so simple. In order to qualify, they had to be one of the top ten runners who were not a part of the top three teams at regionals. Placing in the overall top ten, Lowe secured his chance to run at state, but Wolfe had more uncertain circumstances as he clinched the final qualifying spot to state.

“I was about to leave, and Jarryn was at the awards ceremony, and he left his backpack in my car,” Wolfe said. “So I left to go get his backpack, and they called my name for qualifying for state, and I was so excited to get the chance to go to Nashville and run with the best runners in Tenn.”

The day before the state race, Wolfe, Lowe, and Shirley went out to preview the course and noticed that the first quarter-mile had a choke point where many runners would be clustered up in a small area. To avoid the chaos, they knew they had to get out of the gate fast. This strategy worked out as other runners stuck in the pack ended up running into trees, getting spiked by other runners, and having their shoes torn off. As a result, Lowe ran well and placed in the top 30.

“I knew it would be very important for that first quarter-mile for me to get my placement right,” Wolfe said. “The beginning of the state race was really rough; there were kids running into trees, kids falling and face planting, running without shoes, getting spiked. It was crazy.”

Since she was the only girl to qualify for state this year, Shirley hopes other girls will follow in her footsteps and one day make the girl’s cross country team a force to be reckoned with.

“I think it’s cool that I was the only girl [at state], but I always encourage everyone else to do their best and help them as much as I can,” Shirley said.

Even though the state race has concluded, these runners still have much to look forward to. With time remaining in their high school careers, their journey in running is just beginning with many opportunities laying in front of them. Wolfe has run in the Garmin Running Lane nationals at Huntsville, Ala., training with the best runners in the country. Farther down the line, he is also looking for scholarships in hopes to run in college. Shirley plans to finish high school on the cross country team and hopes that running will also be a part of her life beyond graduation. Although Lowe is extremely successful in cross country, his main focus is track, and he aspires to continue his athletic and academic career at  Texas A&M. 

“I feel like if I keep improving …  I can possibly go D1 and hopefully get better from there,” Lowe said. “Texas A&M is the school I want to go to. They have really good 800 [meter] runners, and I would love to run with them and for their school.”

The cross country team is near to these runners’ hearts, and they would love to see the program grow. They all believe the key to improving is consistency.

“Just make sure you just stick to the grind, and just keep grinding ‘cause it’s going to pay off,” Lowe said. “Don’t give up; any sport is hard if you really put your mind, soul, and heart into it.”