With school now in session, cross country season is finally gearing up. But you don’t have to tell the East Jackson boys’ team that. They’ve been at it all summer.
East Jackson returns its top four runners, all of whom have emerged as elite talents over the past year.
Seniors Noah Hulett and Vladik Staples have run under coach Tomy Sitton all of their high school careers. Both have consistently improved their times and led the Eagles to a seventh-place finish at state last season. Hulett holds a personal record of 16:42.51 in the 5-K, while Staples set his personal best time at 16:56.86.
The two runners have been training together since they were freshman and largely carried the Eagle squad until last year, when they finally got some much-needed help.
“Our freshman and sophomore years, we didn’t really have anybody to run with,” said Staples. “When these two came along, we are like ‘finally!’ We have someone to push and someone to push us.”
Staples was referring to Chase and Chandler Kennedy, twin brothers who emerged last season and helped elevate East Jackson’s track and cross country teams. Chandler set his 5-K personal record at 17:21.56, while Chase broke the school record at the Region 8-AAA meet with a time of 16:35.60. Chase was also a state placer in the 1600-meter run and the 3200-meter run last spring and was recognized as a national elite freshman talent.
Both of the Kennedys may have been freshman-phenoms, but they credit Hulett and Staples for pushing them in the right direction.
“(Hulett and Staples) kept us motivated,” said Chandler Kennedy. “We thought poorly about ourselves after our very first race. They kept our spirits high and kept us from quitting. I’m really glad they did.”
With his four top runners all posting times consistently under the 17-minute mark, Sitton is confident the Eagles can place at state, especially considering that Hulett, Staples and the Kennedys have been training in the offseason.
“I think we’ll be in the hunt,” said Sitton. “We’ve had a pretty good summer. I think that some of the kids have made a lot of improvement from cross country to track, and then from track until now.”
“We put a lot of hard work in over the summer,” said Hulett. “This was my first time really having a group to run with in the summer, so we all just worked off of each other. We got closer together as teammates, and I think we are going to do really well. We are in really good shape right now. We have a good base and I think we’ll only get better.”
One advantage the Eagles will have this season is the new region alignments in Class AAA. With North Oconee, Buford, St. Pius X, Woodward and North Hall all moving up to AAAA, the Eagles will have a better shot of placing in the top four and getting on the podium at state.
Still, Sitton believes that having a competitive fifth and sixth runner will be key for the Eagles this season. Sitton hopes that Daniel Reeves and Ethridge Chaisson can continue their progression from last season. Reeves set his personal record at a 19:28.50, while Chaisson had a best 5-K of 18:45.24.
“Obviously, we have to keep the front four healthy and improving, but I think our fifth and sixth are coming along,” added Sitton.
While the spotlight shines largely on this season boys’ team, Sitton doesn’t want anyone to count out Lady Eagle runner Kristin Whitlock. Whitlock is entering her senior year and holds school records in the 1600, 1200 and 800-meter runs. Sitton believes Whitlock and incoming freshman Susanne Morales will have a good opportunity to qualify for state.
Sitton plans on employing an on-and-off training strategy for his runners this season to allow their bodies time to rest and recuperate. He said he’s fully aware that almost every meet is a practice for region and state competitions.
Sitton’s runners trust him as a coach and know full well the many accolades and coaching honors he has received throughout his career.
“If it hadn’t been for coach Sitton, we probably wouldn’t be here right now,” noted Staples.
When it comes to region competition, the Eagle squad is confident, and sophomore Chase Kennedy has one message for his opponents.
“I’m the dark horse, and I’m coming for all of you,” he said.