In a year of uncertainty, the sport of cross country was no more immune to COVID-19 than the general population. But thanks in part to the nature of the sport being held outdoors in vast arenas, the determination of race directors to hold their events, and parents and coaches being willing to do whatever it takes to give their athletes a chance to compete, the season went off (relatively) without a hitch. Some events were postponed or even cancelled, some events changed venues, the size of the field was often limited, and admission for spectators was occasionally cut back but racing went on. Collinwood High School, with the addition of a middle school division this year, managed to compete in ten meets throughout the season.
If you didn’t know the world was in a pandemic, you might have thought all was well as the Trojans toed the line in Parkers Cross Roads on the very same fields where the Civil War once determined the fate of many young men not much older than the runners battling there on September 8th. Over 100 racers took off for the 3.1 miles at the sound of the gun. When the dust had settled, Collinwood had four runners cross the line. Kental Rohling and Connor Brewer returned to the fields to test themselves and measure their progress since last season while Alex Newborn (9th grade) and Daygen Smith (7th grade) made their cross country debut.
After a week off, the Squad next took on the always difficult Horse Creek course in the Hardin County Invitational, a race notorious for its mid-race mountain in which the top 10 finishers receive a t-shirt stating “I Conquered the Hill.” Connor Brewer narrowly missed out on some new threads, finishing 12th overall with Newborn, Smith, and Rohling not far behind.
Next the team took on a very different challenge. Instead of tackling trails filled with roots, rocks, and ruts, the runners completed eight laps around the 400m rubberized track at Muscle Shoals High School’s J.F. Moore Stadium in the Trojan Top Two. In an attempt to maintain social distancing, the small schools were split into two heats, with the times from each heat being compiled and compared to determine the results. Three burners from Covenant Christian went out hot and even though the race was only two miles, it was clear that they would not be able to sustain the pace for the entire race. Brewer followed the old cliche of “run your own race” and by lap 4 had begun to reel them in. By lap 6 he had passed two of them, and early in lap 7, took the lead. Connor went on to win the heat finishing 2 miles in 11 minutes and 55 seconds. This time Brewer found himself firmly inside the top ten with a 3rd place overall, a t-shirt and medal for his efforts. Alex Newborn narrowly edged out teammate Kental Rohling as the two finished 19th and 20th overall. Daygen Smith also set a personal best on the day, having run the 2 miles
in just under 16 minutes.
From the cleanliness of the track to the rugged mountain bike trails of Chickasaw Trace Park in Columbia, the runners would find themselves covered in more than just sweat by the end of the Southern Middle Tennessee Invitational. Runners literally had to crawl on hands and knees as they scrambled up and down ditches and berms competing for the fastest in the forest. With trails being so narrow and few places to pass, a good start was imperative. Connor Brewer had one of those good starts immediately vaulting himself into the top ten where he would remain for the duration of the race, capturing his 2nd straight top ten finish (7th). Kainan Grimes made his season debut and ran alongside fellow teammates Kental Rohling and Daygen Smith (who competed in the middle school division).
Two days later Daygen Smith would take the field again, only this time he would be competing with runners his own age in a middle school only competition. In a season of turmoil, many middle school race directors threw in the towel on their events leaving Smith to compete against fields with runners often as much as six years older. On the 1st of October, Daygen got a chance to test himself and show his ability on a level playing field, so to speak. And he measured up quite well, claiming 7th overall. The course traveled 1.5 miles around the Loretto Sportsplex just outside South Lawrence Middle School. Not only did Daygen crack the top ten, but his little sister Shylynn was also a last minute entry for the girls race. She too finished 7th overall in her debut with a look that said “I may never run again” at the finish line.
The chilly morning of October 17th saw the team traveling across the border into Alabama once again to compete in the Falcon Derby at Blue Water Polo Club. The event was hosted by Florence High School and was unique in that it traversed perfectly groomed polo fields and even around a dirt race track for a period. As restrictions loosened, the field grew and over 150 runners toed the line. Brewer once again ran strong and fast as he covered the 5 km in 19:16, his fastest time to date, and 7th place among the small school runners earning himself another t-shirt. T-shirts are common prizes among cross country race awards. Brewer and Kainan Grimes were the two lone entrants for the varsity race with Smith racing in the 2.1 mile junior varsity event.
The last race of the season before Cross Country Regional took place on a day that seemed more like late July rather than October. With temperatures in the 90’s and not a tree in sight for shade, the runners meandered around the Athens Sports Complex in Athens, Alabama. Once again, lax restrictions made way for a massive field, and crowd too. Runners crossed athletic fields, small creek beds, and even parking lots as they weaved around for the 3.1 miles. Brewer led the way for the Trojans, finishing 12th overall in what was, according to his own words, “harder than normal.” Smith ran hard in the junior varsity 5k and Grimes also gave it his all, running his best time of the year in the varsity competition.
The excitement was palpable when the team took the field for XC Region 4 small schools competition at Henry Horton State Park. On the line was an invitation for the top 10 individuals and top 3 teams to compete the next week at the TSSAA Cross Country State Championships. The field wasn’t quite as large due to the fact that only schools from the region were competing, but with what was on the line, every runner would certainly give their best effort. Newcomer Jamison Dickey, Grimes, Newborn, and Brewer were the only entries for CHS, and since five runners are required to make a team, the only chance of qualifying would be as an individual. A small but fast field would make it that much tougher. All four runners started off strong, but as the race wore on, it was Brewer who found himself locked right in the middle of the top ten battle with a championship berth awaiting him at the finish. Though he gained a few places and lost a few in the process, Connor managed to gut out a 7th place finish guaranteeing the first boy in school history would compete at the State Championships. Alex, Kainan, and Jamison also finished strong and celebrated at the finish with Connor as they looked back on a strange and difficult season, while Connor would look forward to his State Championship run.
Sanders Ferry Park was buzzing on a beautiful afternoon when the gun sounded for the State Championship race. Knowing the top runners from all over Tennessee would be there, and having hurt in every race for the entire long season, Brewer settled in the middle of the pack. Though he was in the middle, he was definitely not running slow as he covered his first mile up and down hills and around turns in 5 minutes and 53 seconds. Connor held on to that pace for much of the race finishing in 19:06, a personal best. Regardless of the placing, the race was a success as it was a culmination of 3 years of hard work for Brewer.
Though the season had its own challenges, the joy of training, learning, and competing was not lost on the team. CHS expressed appreciation to Beavers’ Tie and Lumber Company for sponsoring the Cross Country team and making the financial side of the season one less thing to worry about. The parents are to be commended for allowing, encouraging, and prodding their young ones to get out and do what few choose to do for fun. And most of all, the runners who logged countless miles in the heat of summer, who ignored the rain when it fell in torrents, who pushed up hills, galloped down, and found pleasure in the one thing that also causes pain, are to be recognized for all their efforts. A famous writer and fellow runner calls it “type 2 pain.” It’s the kind that you do not realize how much you enjoy until it has passed. For Connor and Kainan, congratulations on completing your high school cross country adventure. Thank you for helping take cross country from an idea to the team it was this year.