IT’S BEEN a long building process, but Jackson County cross country coach Joseph Brubaker believes his boys’ team may at last experience some upward mobility.
Six of the seven runners who competed at the boys’ region meet return this fall, including two that recorded sub-19 minute times. That has the coach optimistic for what might transpire this fall — and beyond.
“I’m interested to see how this guys’ team is going to finish the year,” Brubaker said. “Potential-wise, I think we’re at a place where this year and next year that we can get to a different level than we have been.”
Last year’s top runner, Oscar Ponce, a sophomore, returns after running an 18:21 at region last year despite being relatively new to the sport.
“He’s a guy who brings excitement into the program because he’s naturally gifted,” Brubaker said.
Cory Ramey, who won the Coaches’ Award last year, ran an 18:56 at region a year ago.
“Cory just comes out and competes … he just pushes through every level of pain that’s out there,” Brubaker said.
The team welcomes junior Nathan Galloway, the top miler on the Panther track team this past spring.
“He’s the most driven high school kid that I’ve probably been around,” Brubaker said.
Adding depth are Tyler Rutledge, who brings natural ability and consistency to the team; John Ledford, the squad’s lone senior and another consistent runner; Robert Ledford, a natural runner who could set some PRs this year; and Calvin Ellis, who is also a track runner.
“We need guys that want to compete,” Brubaker said. “I think we’ve continued to build that, not as fast as I’ve wanted. But we’re definitely in a better place than we were last year.”
Brubaker said East Jackson and Oconee County are the teams to beat in Region 8-AAA on the boys’ side. As for Jackson County, finishing fourth at the region meet and advancing to state is on the team’s list of goals.
“I think the picture gets clearer and clearer as we approach the end of October,” he said.
On the girls’ side, the Lady Panthers will attempt to keep a streak of six state meet appearances alive. Leading the group is junior runner Monica Jimenez, who finished fifth in Region 8-AAA in 2013 as a sophomore with a time of 20:42. She owns a 20:37 PR.
“Monica has so much natural ability and toughness that she should be right where she was last year,” Brubaker said.
The team also welcomes back junior Allison Freeman, who ran a 22:49 at region who could drop her times even lower this year, and senior Brooke Bullock (26:02 at region).
Other runners include Emily Doeding, Bailye Hendley, Nikki Fowler, transfer Maddie Knowles and Ella Ivanova, who Brubaker said will be a great addition to the team.
Though Jackson County lost some scorers from last year’s group, its goal is to reach the state meet for a seventh consecutive year. But the path may be the most challenging in Brubaker’s tenure as coach.
“It’s has never not been a goal for this program to go to state,” Brubaker said. “We have the most unknown of any year since I’ve been here, so basically will the potential be met? The high could be really high and the low could be low.”