For the first time in program history, the Mary Persons boys cross country team captured back-to-back region championships with a team victory at the Region 2-AAAA title meet at the Georgia Industrial Children’s Home in Macon on Thursday.
The Bulldogs totaled 39 points to take home the region title for the second straight year. West Laurens was the runner-up for the second consecutive year with 47 points followed by Perry in third place with 64 points. Upson-Lee was the fourth and final Region 2-AAAA squad to qualify for state with 83 points.
Also, for the second straight year, MP junior Justin Wachtel was the boys individual champion, finishing with a winning time of 16 minutes, 4 seconds, to best second-place finisher Paul Kellam of West Laurens, who finished in a time of 17 minutes, 7 seconds, by 1 minute, 3 seconds.
Wachtel, who often runs against the top runners in the state, said he competes with the same intensity in regional competitions like Thursday.
“It’s just always knowing that everyone is there supporting me and backing me and behind me,” Wachtel said. “And always knowing that there’s something in front of me to get. There’s always something more you can achieve. And I’m constantly pushing my own limits and trying to push those around me at the same time.”
Other MP boys runners who recorded counting times included: senior Logan O’Neill, who placed fifth overall out of 40 total runners with a time of 17 minutes, 56 seconds, junior Connor Battles, who placed sixth with a time of 18 minutes, 17 seconds, junior Holden Haworth, who placed 10th with a time of 18 minutes, 34 seconds, and junior Weston Dunwody, who placed 17th with a time of 19 minutes, 17 seconds.
Other MP boys runners who competed on Thursday but failed to record counting times included: senior Bryce Lynch, who placed 26th with a time of 20 minutes, 8 seconds, and senior Alex Hansen, who placed 30th with a time of 20 minutes, 35 seconds.
Spalding finished in fifth place in the boys team competition with 133 points while Howard came in sixth place with 171 points.
MP head coach LLonisha McElhaney, who returned from maternity leave just in time to see her Bulldogs take region yet again, said she was nervous about the boys squad’s chances after one of the team’s top runners, Alec Remick, suffered a late-season injury. However, McElhaney said her boys team’s quality depth, close-knit relationships and Wachtel’s extraordinary talent enabled MP to pull through for a second time.
McElhaney said of Wachtel: “He’s a phenomenal runner, and I think everybody knows that. He had an awesome season. He dictated his season, and he did awesome with his workouts and his work ethic. I can’t ask for a better runner. And he’s so humble, so he’s easy to coach. And for the team, he’s a leader. But they all get along so well, and they all follow suit.”
Meanwhile, the MP girls cross country team was also seeking its second straight Region 2-AAAA championship on Thursday. However, the Lady Dogs were forced to settle for third place this year, largely due to an untimely leg injury to one of its brightest stars, Ava McKallip, who placed third as an individual at last year’s region meet.
The Lady Dogs finished with 59 points as West Laurens took home the team title with a total of 45 points. Perry finished just two points ahead of MP in second place with 57 points. Upson-Lee was the fourth and final Region 2-AAAA squad to qualify for state with 74 points.
Despite falling short of capturing the team championship, MP sophomore Maradeth Leverett became the first MP girls runner to win an individual region championship since Anna Leigh Nix in 2013. Leverett’s first-place time of 21 minutes, 43 seconds was seven seconds faster than that of second-place finisher Georgia Maddox of Perry, who finished in 21 minutes, 50 seconds.
It was the first time since 2012 that MP has had the boys and girls individual champions in the same year. Caleb Watson and Nix, respectively, were the individual champs in 2012. Leverett, who placed fourth in her first try at region in 2018, said she realized from comparing her regular season times with her region competition that she had a good chance to win on Thursday.
Leverett, who McElhaney described as “awesome: smart and athletic”, said her region title win has allowed her to see the good that can come from hard work.
She said, “It’s really taught me to keep pushing for things that I want in cross country and just things in life.”
Other MP girls runners who recorded counting times included: junior Sarah Boyer, who placed fourth out of 37 total runners with a time of 22 minutes, 41 seconds, junior Stormie Martin, who placed 17th with a time of 24 minutes, 31 seconds, sophomore Caroline Hampton, who placed 18th with a time of 24 minutes, 49 seconds, and sophomore Genna Hallman, who placed 19th with a time of 24 minutes, 56 seconds.
Other MP girls runners who competed on Thursday but failed to record counting times included: junior Gracie Martin, who placed 23rd with a time of 25 minutes, 29 seconds, and freshman Madelyn Causey, who placed 26th with a time of 26 minutes, 7 seconds.
Spalding finished in fifth place in the girls team competition with 110 points while Howard came in sixth place with 158 points.
Despite coming up short of a team victory, McElhaney said she was pleased with her girls squad’s performance on Thursday.
“Ava’s injury hurt the team because we didn’t have a lot of depth,” McElhaney said. “And then Caroline was injured all season. So she really only had one race to get it together prior to region, so she did more than what I expected of her. And then we had some of our newer runners step up big time and close that gap. So for them to pull off third, I’m very proud of them.”
The MP boys and girls varsity cross country teams will next compete in the AAAA state championship meet at Carrollton High School at 9 a.m. on Friday. The MP boys team placed 12th a year ago with Wachtel coming in second place as an individual by less than a second. Wachtel said this time around it is the Bulldogs’ goal to crack the top 10 for the first time in recent history, and he said he has his sights set on his first AAAA individual championship.
He said, “I’ve been undefeated up to this point (in 2019), so now it’s really just time to finish out the rest of the season and stay on it and get a couple more big races out of the year and see what happens.”
Wachtel said it will take intense mental focus to realize his dream of being a state champion.
“Just know what I need to do and stay mentally ready,” Wachtel said. “And just use everything that I’ve worked on all year and be able to funnel it into this one last race.”
Also, the Lady Dogs, who placed ninth at state in 2018, will be looking for their second consecutive Top 10 state finish. Leverett, who was MP’s top finisher at state in 43rd place in 2018, said she’ll miss running alongside McKallip, who placed 48th last year, this time around.
“I’ve kind of had to learn how to pace on my own, and I kind of just like having someone to run with,” Leverett said. “But it’s okay, hopefully she’ll be back for next season.”