CHARLOTTE – The Providence Day boys cross country team got a chance to show just how strong they are on Oct. 6 at the Great American Cross Country Festival in Cary.
The festival was a big race typical of the Wendy’s Invitational or New Balance regional events.
But this was a big-boy race.
The Race of Champions saw Carter Cheeseman of Fort Worth Christian run a winning time of 14 minutes, 50 seconds – the 20th-fastest time recorded in the nation this season. Four racers turned in top 50 times in the country, and of the 196 runners who competed, 193 of them broke 17:55.
The race featured the United States No. 1 team, Loudoun Valley of Virginia, Bolles High from Florida and Bishop Hendricken High from Rhode Island, all of which are elite programs.
But there was Providence Day, hanging with them all and finishing ninth overall in a race that had 47 elite teams from more than 20 states.
Sophomore standout Christian Landis set a new-personal best of 15:27 and placed 17th overall.
The Chargers top five all broke 16:50 – a feat they accomplished for just the second time in the Chargers storied history – and the top seven all went under 17:15.
But the Chargers weren’t satisfied, and that’s a positive to coach Ben Hovis, a former Providence Day star himself who has guided the boys team to 10 state championships since 2002 including last season’s.
“The goal for this weekend (was to) look at our times from this week and look at our state championship times from last year,” he said. “We ran really well to win it. Last year, we had the fastest fifth man in team history, and this year, we have the second-fastest so far.”
Andrew Riolo, the Chargers No. 5 runner, tied his mark from last year’s meet, running a 16:45, but Landis (42 seconds) and Colter Nichols (41 seconds) shaved considerable time off their 2017 state meet time while Jason Krell and Adam Habas are running on similar paces from last year.
Overall, the Chargers finished fourth at the Great American race in terms of teams from North Carolina, exactly where they are seeded right now in the state behind Weddington, Cary and Chapel Hill.
Hovis and his team think they can get to No. 2 in the state by the end of the season, but they know they still have work to do.
This year’s top eight has times of Landis (15:25), Habas (16:16), Nichols (16:27), Krell (16:30), Riolo (16:45), John Smith (17:09), Robert Veras (17:15) and Luke Manna (17:22).
They’re already fast, but they will get better down the stretch.
“In my opinion, I think we can all be under the 16-minute barrier and even get to 15:45,” said Krell, a co-captain who ran 16:13 last year, but is currently working his way back from injury. “We talked alot about it last year, but our team has big goals going forward and it’s not just this year but beyond.”
Krell’s optimism is not unfounded, and it starts at the top.
Landis’ time at the Great American was the third-best run in the state this season.
“Christian is really good,’ Hovis said. “Last year, he was the national champion (in the freshman 2-mile at the prestigious New Balance Nationals). Granted, not everyone travels to that event, but his time was easily top 10 in the country. He’s unrattled and unphased, and he runs better in races where there are fast guys where he can latch onto them and sort of hang out.
“But we have a lot of guys who can get to where Christian is. Adam may have the most pure talent, but Christian’s head is the difference. You can’t teach what he has. But Adam has ridiculous talent as evidenced by his 1:56 as a freshman in the 800. He’s been running great workouts and he could run 15:40 and it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Jason could be there too, but he’s been banged up. Andrew works super hard. If he ran in the 16-teens it wouldn’t surprise me and Colter is just a racer. So who knows.”
That’s the scary part because Hovis sees the talent and the possibilities daily at practice.
While this team is already crazy good and incredibly deep, the sky is really the limit as all will come back next year and Landis’ sophomore class is exceptionally good with Nichols, Smith and Manna among its stars.
Even more, this season they are sort of on their own after the graduation of Noah Dohare, a four-time all-state star now a freshman runner at Furman.
“This year has been really different because we haven’t had someone to look up to like we did with Noah, but this year has been fun because we’ve had to figure it out and push each other,” Krell said.
As the season has worn on, they’ve become even better with the sophomores pushing the juniors and everyone trying to get the Chargers where they want to be.
Hovis said Krell looked great in practice last week, which is an encouraging sign. But all of the Chargers have learned to push themselves when it matters.
“It’s all friendly competition, but we get after each other,” Krell said. “At the end of the day we all want to be the best. That really pushes us in races, but also every day when we’re out here in practice. When it’s a hard workout, there’s always a guy to pick you up. We know that if we take a day off someone else is going to take your spot.”
And that’s what keeps the Chargers well-oiled machine humming.
Realistically there are no challengers this season so the boys will wrap up their 19th consecutive CISAA title, which is a remarkable stretch of dominance.
They should win the state meet, too. The girls could join them, but the boys are racing against themselves and the program’s history.
That’s the coolest part to Hovis, who still owns the Chargers’ 16th-fastest time. He says the runners today remember Dolhare, but also Jack Paddison, Ben Huffman, Nick Linder and assistant coach John Compton who are some of the top runners in the program’s rich history.
“I’ve been at the school since TK and most of the guys have been here a while,” Landis said. “We have been watching this program and grew up watching those guys. So it was like, ‘OK, when can we go out, put the varsity uniform and compete.’”
Led by Landis, now they’re literally racing against time.
“Christian broke Ben’s sophomore record by 10 seconds already this year (and then added 21 seconds of distance at the Great American Festival) and Ben was no slouch. He ran the fastest-ever N.C. time at McAlpine, so that’s an accomplishment,” Hovis said. “And I think we can have a couple guys running with Christian this season.”
The 2006 championship team scored a program-best 33 points as they placed five guys in the top 11 of that year’s championship. This season, based off times but obviously not a predictor of how the runners will do in the Oct. 25 finale, the Chargers have five in the top nine and are gunning to eclipse the 2006 team’s lowest-ever score.
“Taking that down is definitely a goal,” Hovis said. “We’ve had better runners on the same team before like when we had Jack, Nick and Ben, but we’ve never been this deep.
“We have a realistic goal of being second in the state this year, and of winning the title again. But who knows, next year they should be the best five in school history so we’ll see what they’re capable of.”