The Cartersville boys cross country team has made the trip to the state championship meet an annual tradition. This week, the Canes will participate in the season-ending competition for the 34th straight year.
It’s a truly remarkable achievement. But Cartersville has higher aspirations than just competing at state. After finishing sixth last year, the Canes fully expect to earn a spot on the podium as one of the top four teams in Class 4A.
It won’t be an easy accomplishment to pull off with several quality teams likely to compete for the top few spots. Chances are the final standings will be littered with teams from Region 7-AAAA (Denmark, Blessed Trinity, Chestatee and Marist) and Region 8-AAAA (St. Pius X, Oconee County and North Oconee).
“There are just a host of great schools that we’re going to have to compete against,” Cartersville coach David Matherne said. “… But we’re invited to the party, too, and I know our guys are ready.”
Cartersville is certainly the top 4A team outside of those two loaded regions. Unlike years past, it doesn’t appear this season will be a battle just between Marist and St. Pius for the state championship. In a meet that will feature poor weather and tough field conditions, there could be a lot of movement within the top eight or so teams in the classification.
In a lot of ways, Cartersville has done everything right to prepare for this moment.
Familiarity with the course could be a key factor, as GHSA determined earlier in the week that no preview or practice would be allowed due to the heavy amount of rain that has saturated the notoriously hilly terrain in Carrollton. Likewise, experience running in large competitive fields should ease the pressure felt by the competitors, especially the freshmen and other first-time state qualifiers.
“You’ve got to bring them to the biggest show in town and let them see that they belong,” Matherne said of preparing for the state meet. “… When you take them to those meets and the young kids get to see a large competitive field, it’s nothing new when they get to state. A young runner can be intimated at the state meet, but I don’t think our young runners will be.”
Having his youngsters at their best would be a huge boost to Matherne. The Canes have just one senior among their top 15 runners. That bodes well for the future, but as Matherne said earlier this week, “The future starts after Friday.”
Cartersville, which will be running in the first race of the weekend at 9 a.m., has relied upon the trio of Bill Archer, Alex Rios and Sidney Stegall all season. A junior, sophomore and freshman, respectively, the three-headed monster should give the Canes a solid base in the state meet.
Archer and Stegall should challenge for top-10 finishes, while Rios will be an X-factor with a legitimate shot at placing in the top 20. Last week, they took the top three spots in the Region 5-AAAA meet in Douglas County. Archer led the group and earned MileSplit 4A runner of the week for his winning efforts. Stegall was runner-up with Rios in third to help Cartersville capture its first region title since 2012.
“To an observer, in the first lap, it didn’t look like that was going to happen,” Matherne said of his runners finishing 1-2-3 in the race at Clinton Farms, which is a two-lap course. “But we knew it could happen, and it was just a testament to how well those guys ran. I think at the mile mark, we were [Nos.] 3, 4 and 6. They ended up taking care of business over the last mile and a half.”
On the girls side, Cartersville placed second behind LaGrange. The Canes actually finished tied with Chapel Hill, but the team’s sixth-place runner broke the tie in favor of Cartersville.
“Our girls had won three out of the last five and darn near made it four out of six,” Matherne said. “They were four points away from winning.
“Both teams performed at a high level, but it wasn’t unexpected. We knew we were hitting on all cylinders.”
Like the boys, the Cartersville girls have an extremely young team but still managed to qualify for state for the 21st straight season and 32nd time in 34 years. The team's top six runners are underclassmen, including three sophomores (McKinsey Spinks, Trinity Atkins and Jaxiry Betancourt), two juniors (Alice Terry and Trista Kelly) and one freshman (Samantha Herrera).
Matherne believes the group has a chance to challenge for a spot in the top 10 of its race, which is set to begin at 9:45 a.m. It would be a great showing for a team that has progressed throughout the season and should only be stronger in 2020.
For the boys, though, it would register as a disappointment to not improve upon last year’s finish. Cartersville likely won’t be the top public school in the field with Denmark having won its highly competitive region. That means the Canes would need to edge out one of the “Big Three” private schools in St. Pius, Blessed Trinity and Marist — who have combined to win 11 state titles in the past seven seasons — in order to make it onto the podium.
Matherne believes his group is up for the task.
“Last year, they were thrilled to be sixth in state,” he said. “This year, we have much higher goals. They believe in themselves. That’s important when you get to the state meet.
“… They’re not intimidated by big meets or Carrollton. We trained on hills all year. Where there’s a hill, there’s a way.”