Highlands takes third in middle school cross country championship

Highlands boys and girls cross country teams both took third place at the Smokey Mountain Conference Middle School Championship on Wednesday in Swain County.

Highlands Cross Country Team. Front row from left are Aiden Dendy, Stephen Pierson, Francisco Gooch, Leela Chrestman, Nicole Taylor, Claire Worley, Blaine Dendy. Back row from left are Coach Derek Taylor, Claire Sherwood, James Moore, Timothy McDowell, Cayden Pierson, Isaiah Vilardo, Jim De La Cruz, Coach Blakely Moore.

Athletes ran 2 miles and on the girl’s team Claire Worley placed 5th, Claire Sherwood placed 9th, and Cayden Pierson placed 12th. On the boy’s team; Jim De La Cruz placed 11th and James Moore placed 12th.

Highlands Clair Worley making her way down the final stretch of the 2-mile in Swain County.

Runners faced off against 8 other schools, including Andrews, Cherokee, Hayesville, Hiawassee Dam, Martin’s Creek, Murphy, Robbinsville, and Swain.

Highlands Claire Sherwood cruising along the trail in Swain County.

Highlands Coach Blakely Moore said the girls had their best race of the season.

“Claire Worely and Cayden Pierson ran great races that were very consistent with their training and previous performances throughout the year,” said Moore. “Claire Sherwood and Nicole Taylor exceeded our expectations. They were much further up in the pack than they have been in other meets and ran amazing races. Leela Chrestman has consistently improved throughout the season and showed that yesterday as she was significantly faster than in other competitions.”

Highlands Cayden Pierson maintain her pace at the middle school cross country championship.

Highlands Leela Chrestman going head to head with a Hiwassee Dam runner sprinting for the finish line.

Moore added that the boys did not have their best performance compared to other competitions. Timmy McDowell, one of Highlands’ top runners had surgery over the Christmas break, which impacted his performance.

She said the other boys fatigued quickly from not training enough over the break. However, Jim De La Cruz, Blaine Dendy, and Francisco Gooch had their best performances of the season.

Highlands Timothy McDowell running the final stretch of the 2-mile championship race.

De La Cruz was Highlands’ top team runner at Wednesday’s meet for the first time this season, Dendy had an almost 4-minute PR, and Moore said Gooch was further up in the pack than he has been at previous meets.

“The other boys ran well, it just wasn’t a stand out performance in comparison to other competitions,” said Moore. “Derek (Taylor) and I were both very happy with how close together our runners were. Many of them finished within a few seconds of one another. This consistency was key to our team score.”

Highlands Francisco Gooch racing in the middle school cross country championship.

Highlands Coach Derek Taylor said he thought the runners did a great job.

“The girls were actually tied for second and were third because the tiebreaker goes to the displacer and we didn’t have enough girls for a displacer,” said Taylor. “Everyone’s performance had improved for the year and we had five all conference runners, and I’m pretty sure the boys were undefeated during the season. The season was long, but we are the only sport so far to have finished our season.”

Highlands Isaiah Vilardo competes against 8 other schools in the cross country championship in Swain County.

All-conference runners include Claire Worley, Claire Sherwood, Cayden Pierson, James Moore and Jim De La Cruz.

The season was long because of the adjusted calendar due to COVID-19.

“COVID changed everything,” said Moore. “We would have been done with the season in October if not for the new COVID sports calendar. This pushed us into cold winter months. The kids frequently trained in subzero temperatures, throwing snowballs at one another in between reps.”

Highlands James Moore crushing the last quarter mile of a 2 mile race in Swain County.

Athletes were required to wear masks anytime they were not actively running and practice social distancing, which was particularly challenging on long bus rides to competitions, said Moore.

Several of Highlands’ runners also had quarantines throughout the season, missing weeks of practices and competitions at a time.

Highlands Stephen Pierson waves to Plateau Daily News while racing in the middle school cross country championship.

While COVID may have complicated the season, Moore said she’s proud of the athletes for staying focused throughout the extended season, running in the cold, and doing their part to social distance.

“We were very happy with the season and proud of our athletes,” she said. “We constantly adapted to new schedules, quarantines, new social distancing, and mask wearing protocol. Somehow it all came together, we were able to finish our season and saw significant improvement in each athlete throughout the year.”

Highlands Jim De La Cruz racing in Swain County for the middle school cross country championship.

Moore added that running was a great outlet for middle schoolers who missed so much in the spring because of the pandemic, and the team has already begun planning for track season.

Highlands Blaine Dendy flying along the final strect of the 2-mile race.

“Everyone was content with third place but hope to improve this placement next year,” she said. “The athletes were already making plans and setting goals for track season on the bus ride back!”

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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