CHARLOTTE — To say the NCISAA 4A cross country championship course in Hendersonville was a sloppy, rain-filled, runner-slipping mess on Oct. 27 would be quite an understatement.
“I don’t think pictures do it justice,” said Ben Hovis, Providence Day’s coach and former star runner himself. “You have to see videos to really tell. It was the worst conditions that I think I’ve seen in my 26-ish years in cross country…There was no section on the course that was completely runnable.”
It was the Charger boys, the defending champs and absolute favorites to win it all again on a dry day, who had to wait until the very end through each boys and girls race in the lower classifications, and cheer on the Charger girls in the 4A race.
Then, finally, it was time.
But by then Hovis knew everything had changed.
“We started talking about the weather and the chance of the course being pretty nasty last Monday,” Hovis said. “I tried to tell stories of people who went into races with a positive mindset and did great tackling the tough conditions. If you approach the race with the right mindset you’re going to do fine. But I was telling the girls the weather can be the great equalizer. Someone a minute faster than you with a negative attitude can be caught in those conditions.
“But I couldn’t tell the boys that,” Hovis said of his frontrunners with a chuckle. “But they were excited and pretty pumped up when we left our huddle to go back to the starting line.”
But Durham Academy was the Chargers’ main opposition, and proved to be very formidable.
“I knew it was going to be closer than what it was on paper,” Hovis said. “Plus, looking at predicted scores and finishes there were 17 kids that had broken 17 minutes and 10 of those were from our two schools. We weren’t favorites by that much, and little swings here and there are going to sway it and that’s what happened.”
Adam Habas, the Chargers’ No. 2 runner, fell in the near swamp-like conditions at the starting line and three other times during the race.
But his teammates and, later, Habas himself were able to pick it back up.
Christian Landis became the first Charger sophomore to win a state championship, finishing 15 seconds ahead of the field at 17:17.
“Christian did his job,” Hovis said. “ It’s a two-loop course, and Christian used the first loop to gauge footing and kind of hang out. Around the 2-mile mark Christian took over. He’s a smart kid.”
Jason Krell was the next Charger to cross the line in ninth place (18:00) behind a pair of Durham Academy runners and just in front of two more.
Colter Nichols (18:14), Andrew Riolo (18:18) and John Smith (18:26) crossed the line in order, giving the Chargers the narrowest of wins, 49-50, over Durham Academy.
“We didn’t run a spectacular race, but we proved our depth was our strongest part,” Hovis said. “John Smith was our No. 6 all year, but stepped up and was fifth at conference and at states. That was big. And even though Adam was having a bad day, with about a half mile left I pointed out a little pack of Durham Academy runners and told him how important that spot was and he went and got those guys. If he doesn’t do that, even though he’s having a rough day, then we don’t win.”
The title was the Chargers 10th overall and the 10th in the past 14 seasons.
It was also this group’s second consecutive. With everyone back and some valuable lessons learned on a tough course the future is certainly bright.
“I think the kids felt a different pressure and it showed,” Hovis said. “We didn’t have a senior leader, the kids were in different roles this year and now the kids had expectations on them. I think all of that made for a very different season than anyone was expecting. In the end they met their goals, so I think there’s a huge relief now. I think a weight’s been lifted and they just want to run. But, this bodes well for next year with all of them returning and have been able to handle the different pressures.
“It was a good win for them.”