THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
By Jason Lesley
The week of the state championship cross country race was torture for Waccamaw High’s Amelia Jones.
A two-time individual Class AA champion, Jones was sick with a sinus infection and headaches. The night before the big race at the Sandhills Research Center in Columbia, she didn’t sleep with other members of the team, fearing they would get sick too and the Warrior girls, runners-up three of the last four years, would miss another golden opportunity.
Nothing was going to stop Waccamaw from winning its first state cross country championship Saturday, said coach Brian White. “We knew it was going to be between us and three or four other teams — Academic Magnet, Landrum and Indian Land,” he said. “We’d been second, and we knew what was at stake. We wanted to make history.”
Saturday morning dawned hot and muggy, far different from the crisp day of the Lower State race a week earlier. While the Upstate teams were complaining about the humidity, the Waccamaw girls were growing confident. They had been running in the muggy morning air for months.
White said the Warrior girls made a commitment to each other: “We were not going to let anybody pass us at the end of the race,” he said.
Jones gave no hint that she was under the weather, taking first place in 19:21. A minute later she was standing behind the finish line cheering for her teammates. Mary Butler DeSpain took ninth in 20:42; Briley Arnold, 12th in 21:00 and Rylee Allison, 13th in 21:06. All four made all-state by finishing in the top 15.
Allison had the closest race of the four. With Ashley Blanton of Landrum on her heels, Allison heard the Landrum coach yell for his runner to pass her. “Oh snap,” Allison said to herself. Nobody would be passing a Waccamaw runner today. Nearing the finish line, Allison spotted a runner in green — Annalise Hafner of Academic Magnet — and squeezed past her to grab 13th by one second.
“Watching them come in, I was screaming,” Jones said. Ella Fata took 19th in 21:24 to give Waccamaw a 39-point victory over Academic Magnet. Madeline Francke placed 20th in an identical 21:24, and Samantha Kelley was 28th in 21:40. Francke’s time was just 11 seconds off her fastest of the season, her coach said, and she ran step for step with Fata over the last half-mile.
“Once I saw them coming in so close,” Jones said, “I knew we had won. This is so much better than being individual champion. It’s much more fun winning with everyone.”
White said every member of the team, all 26 girls, will get a state championship medal and a ring that will be presented at halftime of a varsity basketball game. “Everybody got pushed throughout the season at some point by somebody on this team” he said. “They all pulled each other along. We talked about trying to finish as a team, finish as a group, be as close as we can to each other.” Girls who didn’t run in the race came to cheer their teammates.
Waccamaw had run against top-flight competition all season, traveling to Spartanburg, Columbia and Orlando, Fla. “Going to other places and running against other schools, seeing different competition helped make these girls better,” White said. The championship team has been building over the past five years. Jones said her role model was Grace Barnett, who is the No. 1 runner for the Clemson cross country team now.
Allison said Jones has been her role model. Now DeSpain will be leader of the pack, inspiring younger girls to run.
“Once they see that we can win a state championship,” Jones said, “so many girls are going to want to come out to be a part of this.”
WHS boys win battle for second place finish
Some runner-up finishes are better than others.
With Academic Magnet racing away with first place, the Class AA boys cross country championship turned into a dog fight for second place Saturday at Sandhills Research Park in Columbia.
The Waccamaw boys cross country team clawed its way to its third straight runner-up finish — and the tall trophy — over Wade Hampton, Landrum and Bishop England in a race where every time mattered.
Waccamaw coach Rob Del Bagno said he and coach Brian White can usually figure out team standings as a race unfolds but not on Saturday. “I was thinking third or fourth,” Del Bagno said, “and when I found out we were second it was a great day for Waccamaw cross country with the girls winning their first state championship.”
Del Bagno said Academic Magnet, with four all-state seniors, was ranked as the seventh best cross country team in the state regardless of classification. “That’s very strong for a AA school,” he said. “For us to finish second behind them, it’s still an honor.”
Waccamaw finished with 98 points, far behind Academic Magnet’s total of 29. The Raptors had five of the top 11 runners. Bishop England looked good in the early going with a third- and a fifth-place finish but couldn’t follow up, falling to fifth.
Perrin Jones led the Warriors with an eighth-place finish in 17:11, his best time of the season, to make the all-state team. Jack Moody took 19th in 17:32, and Matt MacLeod was 20th in 17:37. Senior Maddox Wilkinson returned to the lineup after missing the region and Lower State races with a hip injury to get 26th in 17:53, and Robert Buffington rounded out the top five with a 29th place finish in 18:02. Berndt Anderson was 42nd in 18:28, and Jeremy Green was 43rd in 18:29.
“A few guys ran their guts out,” Del Bagno said. “Matt MacLeod had his best time. Maddox Wilkinson could have very easily just quit, but he gutted through that last mile. Without him, we don’t walk away with the trophy.”
Del Bagno will lose three of his top seven runners to graduation but can reload with young prospects. “Our returning guys are young and talented,” he said. “They are into it. That’s enough for me to be fired up about next year.”