The Wingfoot XC Classic at Sam Smith Park in Cartersville Saturday is the biggest high school cross country meet in Georgia, both in the number of teams competing and the quality of competition.
Woodland girls head coach Matthew Landolt said about 15 or 16 of the top 20 ranked teams in the state, across all classifications, attended the event.
However, the Lady Wildcats have been so successful in recent years, that even finishing fourth in the loaded 34-team championship race wasn't all that impressive to junior Tess Cochran.
"It was right about what I was expecting," an apathetic Cochran said. "Top three would have been nice but four is pretty good."
Woodland almost did place third, coming within four points of third-place, Class 7A South Forsyth. The only other teams Woodland didn't surpass were likely state champions in their respective classifications, Marietta and Marist.
The Lady Wildcats weren't the only local team in action Saturday at Sam Smith Park, although they were the only one to run in the championship races with a select few elite teams. The other Bartow teams ran in the varsity races, and those weren't lacking for talent either. The No. 7-ranked team in Class 4A, the Cartersville boys, placed ninth in the varsity race with an average time of 18:39. Woodland placed 22nd with an average time of 19:26.
The Bartow rivalries were particularly significant in this meet because, just like last year, it served as the county championship. Adairsville ran in the JV race and Cass didn't have enough runners to qualify as a team, giving the Cartersville boys the Bartow championship.
Of course, the Woodland girls also took home the trophy for best in the county, but the Lady Canes had a strong showing as well. They placed 14th out of 34 teams, better than head coach David Matherne expected given the quality of competition.
"I thought they'd be more at about halfway through the field, but they finished 14th," Matherne said. "That was really impressive. They did really well."
While bragging rights are always important in Bartow, the county championships took a back seat on this day to the sheer magnitude of the event. Nearly 1,000 runners competed in just the varsity and championship races for the boys and girls. There also were several different JV and middle school races and a community race later in the evening.
Tents lined as far as the eye could see in the open Sam Smith Park field, and the emcee/hype man on stage could be heard loud and clear from end to end, often giving the event the ambiance of a music festival rather than a cross country meet.
The pomp and circumstance would have felt out of place, though, if it weren't for the collection of cross country talent on the course.
"When you can run a championship race that has teams from out of state coming in, you know it's big. This is more competitive than the state meet," Matherne said. "I don't think a lot of people in Cartersville know what they have in their backyard. It'd be sort of like what the Masters is to Augusta. Everybody knows that, but this is the race that people talk about all year long."
Despite the depth of running talent in the field, several local runners fit right in. Chief among them was Woodland's McKenna Trapheagen, who finished eighth out of 240 runners in the girls championship race. Trapheagen ran an 18:59, and her emergence as one of the best runners in the state continues to be the major storyline of the local cross country season.
"This is the best I've done at this race the past three years," Trapheagen said. "I've always been like in 60th place and coming in around a 20[-minute time]. So this is definitely a change. "
Cochran wasn't far behind in 23rd at 19:30.
"McKenna Trapheagen and Tess Cochran had just tremendous races," Landolt said, adding Trapheagen's eighth-place finish probably means she's the eighth-best runner in all classifications this year. "Tess Cochran has had a great start to the season. This is the second time she's had a really strong pull. McKenna's been awesome all year in every race. So we can't ask for any more out of those two."
Carli Clymer and Rylee Evans each placed in the mid-50s with times around 20:17, followed by Cheyenne Spinks in 70th at 20:45 to round out the point scorers for the Lady Wildcats.
A point of intrigue coming in for Woodland was the battle for the top spot in the Class 5A state rankings. McIntosh is the defending state champ, returned its top five runners and was ranked first in the Class 5A poll this week with Woodland checking in at No. 2.
As a result, it was a significant development when McIntosh finished fifth, one spot behind the Lady Wildcats in the same race. Although, a McIntosh runner did fall down at one point, skewing the results.
Landolt said he was hoping to finish near McIntosh to give his team some confidence at the midway point of the season. The final results now leave Woodland firmly entrenched in the discussion for a second state title in three years.
"We knew they were the state champs from last year. They set the benchmark last year and they had all five girls coming back. So we know, if we [are going to win a state championship], we would have to beat that team. But it's very, very close and it'll be a battle all the rest of the season," Landolt said of the competition with McIntosh. "I do [think we've closed the gap some]. This is all I could hope for at this meet. I was just hoping we'd make a contest of it and show that we're capable of doing everything we needed to do. We did that and then some."
Besides the Woodland girls, the Cartersville boys had the best showing, led by sophomore Bill Archer in 20th at 17:42, junior Max Florence in 44th with a time of 18:27 and freshman Alex Rios in 61st with a time of 18:38. Rounding out the point scorers for the Bartow-champ Canes were senior Jacob Busek in 94th at 19:05 and freshman Levi Booth in 101st at 19:14.
"Bill got 20th overall and only five sophomores got in the top 20. You're talking about 277 runners," Matherne said. "Alex Rios, who finished 44th, there were only two freshmen in front of him. So he was the third freshman in the entire race. So that's pretty impressive. And Levi Booth, who also is a freshman, was our fifth guy today. He just continues to surprise in how well he's adjusting to high school running."
For the Cartersville girls, Alex Machado led the way again in 31st with a time of 23:01. Vanna Beach was next in at 86th with a time of 24:56, followed by Trista Kelly in 94th at 25:05, Alice Terry in 109th at 25:26 and Metzli Munoz in 122nd at 25:43.
"Fantastic. I felt great about it because both the boys and the girls competed at a high level in blistering heat, but they competed so hard," Matherne said. "I was so proud of them for the level of fire that they brought. It was roasting out there but none of them backed off. Our varsity and JV teams, boys and girls, ran at a high level."
The Woodland boys were led by John Shropshire in 59th at 18:37, followed by John Forsyth in 100th at 19:14, Dylan Stermer in 109th at 19:23, Reece Mitchell in 136th at 19:46 and Preston Walton in 164th at 20:12.
Not to be forgotten, a Cass runner in each the boys and girls races acquitted themselves well in the talented field. Olivia Flynn placed 181st with a time of 28:06, while Prim Patel came in 178th in the boys varsity race with a time of 20:28.