By WILL HIGHTOWER
Another year, another title. For the senior runners on the Mountain Brook cross country team, winning the state championship is nothing new. The seniors, with some help from underclassmen, capped off their high school careers without having lost a state title. The boys won their fourth in a row, while the girls won their astounding ninth state championship in a row.
The boys came into the season looking for leadership after a strong senior class led by Jack Morgan graduated. As it turned out, there were plenty of runners waiting in the wings for their time in the spotlight. Junior Payton Ballard assumed the position of lead runner, with Nick Halbach, Jack Monaghan and Andrew Fix just behind. After a successful season that included wins across the state and the country, the varsity boys went into state thinking about closing in on their fourth straight ring.
“Our strategy for the race was just to push it, get out in front and catch up to the next fastest guy in front of you,” senior Brooks Kimberly said. Kimberly was called up to race at state at the last minute on Thursday night before the Saturday morning race. “We just wanted to break the other teams’ will, and I think we did that pretty well.”
The race, which was held at Oakville Indian Mounds Park, went like the Spartans had planned. Ballard finished first for Mountain Brook and third overall with a time of 16:08, equating to a 5:20 mile pace for the 3.1-mile course. Monaghan and Halbach came in next at sixth and seventh overall. Fix, who only hours later came down with a high fever, and Parker Morrow, whose time of 16:46 was a personal record, rounded out the top five for the Spartans. The top five are the ones who are counted towards the team’s overall point total.
“It’s pretty incredible to see all the work pay off,” Fix said. “Six years ago it would’ve been hard to imagine us where we are now. I never would’ve dreamt of being part of such a dominating team so far in the future. After the race, we all kind of found each other in the chute and just let it soak in. We were all in a little pain, but we were so amped up it didn’t really bother us.”
“It was extra special to hit that strong note going out on our senior year,” Kimberly said. “We have a fantastic team with great chemistry.”
The girls had an even deeper streak going into the race: a string of titles dating back to 2002. The entire time that these girls have been in high school, junior high – and hey, even most of elementary school – the Mountain Brook girls have been the very best in the state. This year, the girls weren’t going to let that winning tradition stop.
“We felt a little pressure going in,” junior Ann Sisson said. “But Coach Echols told us to just trust in our training and believe in each other, so it took the pressure off.”
Surprisingly, the senior class of girls is not as strong as the younger ones. Nina Brown was the only senior girl to run in the state championship this year. Juniors Mary Catherine Ellard and Sisson, sophomore Emily Bedell and freshmen Bailey Martin and Sanders Reed carried the team all year.
Sisson finished fourth overall and first for the Spartans with a time of 18:56.
Right behind her were Martin and Bedell, who had times of 19:07 and 19:15, respectively. Reed and Ellard finished eighth and ninth overall, rounding out a dominant top five for the Spartans. In fact, the girls had an overall score of 25 points. In a sport where lower is better, that number is a sign of domination. The next closest team? McGill-Toolen, with 78 points.
“It felt awesome when we crossed the finish line,” Sisson said. “There’s nothing like that feeling you get when all of your hard work has paid off and you achieve your goals.”
The sheer depth of the girls team is unbelievable, especially considering that most are young. Most of the girls will return for the Spartans next year, making expectations sky-high. After that, most of these girls could run at the collegiate level if they choose.
These days, the 6A cross country state championship has become a bit of a formality. Runners in the past came in with the mentality that the championship was anyone’s to win. But after nine in a row and four in a row by the girls and boys from Mountain Brook, the rest of the state has been relegated to fighting for second place. Look for more of the same in years to come.