(Photo courtesy of Chad Bell)
In his last year of 42 years of coaching, Buchholz Head Coach Ron Norris is putting together quite a string of memories. At last week's Mtn Dew Classic, he saw his top runner, Calum McFetridge fall and then crawl to the line to finish 27th. And this week, at his own Buchholz Bobcat Classic-his 16th at Buchholz to go along with 20 at his former school, Newberry- he had to disqualify a runner for interference during Saturday's race.
"It was a flagrant elbowing by the GHS runner more than one time, "Norris said. " It was something that could not be handled with just a slap on the wrist. It's one of those unfortunate situations."
So rewind to the race start. Saturday's conditions were ideal. The air was crisp, the temperature was in the low to upper 60s- a stark contest from last week's Mtn Dew Invite where race temperature and humidity soared -, the grass was cut to 1" instead of the 2.5" it was normally cut and the course surface was dry.
Junior Bryce Bell took advantage of the conditions and suited up in his Lyman neon green jersey, shot to the lead and stoked the pace with a sizzling 4:48 opening mile. Heritage (GA)'s Jallah Galimah tried to stay with him, but by ¾ of a mile, he was gapped and by the mile he was five seconds in arrears.
"He did a session of repeats last week that really told us that he was ready to go," said Lyman Head Coach Fred Finke- a veteran coach of 37 years. "We've been hesitant going out, but this week we took it out in the 4:40s and it changed the complexion of the race."
"I wanted to take it out a little faster. I've been working on that, "said Bell. "I knew my training has been paying off for it. I was looking at taking it out at a good pace and holding it for as long as I could."
With each step he kept increasing his lead from five at the first to 11 seconds by the two mile and eventually 12 seconds by race end.
"I knew it was pretty quick. It motivated me, "said Bell of his opening mile. " I kept my composure and kept the same rhythm. It paid off."
Bell's 15:46.41 was a huge PR shaving off 21.47 seconds off his previous best time set at Mtn Dew. His time was also good enough for second fastest all time for the Bobcat falling just shy of Jeremy Criscione's (Interlachen) 15:40.31 meet record set in 2005.
"I am really happy with my time, "said Bell. " I'm glad I was able to finally race my race and do what I supposed to do. Earlier in the season I wasn't running like I should have been. I'm glad to come out here and kind of do my best and show people what I am capable of."
Behind him, Galimah hung tough for two miles. But as is their team's MO, Leon's Matthew Cashin, used an even paced effort to reel in Galimah and finish 11.89 seconds behind Bell.
"I like to run my own race and pace myself throughout and catch people who go out to fast," said Cashin of his 5:03, 10:15 first two miles. "He was just too far out and was able to keep his distance.
For Cashin, his 15:58.30 time was two seconds shy of his 15:56.50 personal best set at last year's FSU Pre-State meet. He is looking at another good effort for next week's FSU Pre-State.
"Hopefully, I'll break that next week or in the state series," said Cashin.
The team race was a less than ideal. After finishing fifth, GHS' Eliot Calfin-Smith was later informed that he was disqualified for interference- in this case elbowing a runner from Lyman several times during the race. Witnesses told Norris that he was deliberate in his actions and several coaches including Fred Finke and Leon Head Coach Andrew Wills confirmed that there were elbows thrown not only to the Lyman runner, but to a Leon runner as well.
"I'm still a little confused" said GHS Head Coach Curtis Cooper of Chalfin-Smith's disqualification. "There was no complaint field. I've seen a lot of bad stuff happen on cross country courses and never had that happen. It's a really difficult situation."
Cooper further added that he thought he had resolved the problem after speaking with Coach Finke and Coach Norris.
"I had gone to the Lyman coach and he said that he wasn't going to go for this (disqualification).'You talk to the kid and talk to the parents,' which I did. I thought we had it all smoothed out which would have allowed Eliot to be counted in the race. And it should have culminated in a second place for us," said Cooper.
When approached by Norris on the conversation between he and Cooper, Coach Finke said that Cooper's interpretation was not his understanding. In the end the disqualification stood.
"It's not what you want to have on a day like today, "said Cooper.
In this author's mind, the entire incident brought to the forefront of what refereeing was in place and, looking to the future, should be in place during a cross country meet. Norris did not see the infraction himself, but was put in a difficult situation when it was reported to him by more than once coach and other spectators. Also, Cooper was at a loss of what to do after he heard of the infraction as there was no jury of appeals in place. He was told the decision was final and not appealable.
As for the team outcome, Lyman took first place with a score of 65 points.
"We came in ready to run. We knew we had prestate next week," said Finke who cited the course being the Region site as a reason for attending. "I like tough courses all the time. I detest track meets on grass. This was good for us and good for our confidence."
Niceville put together a great performance to finish second with 65 points.
"This is the first race that we have run on that was not a sand based course. Being on the Gulf Coast, the footing has been terrible "said Niceville Head Coach Jamie LaFollette. " I had a boy [Andy Holtery] finally break 17. He has been constantly improving. Then my whole pack had a 27 second 1-5 split."
Buchholz's Caden Monk, Issiah Ransom, Martin Cillian, Troy Davis and Clayton Eiland all placed in the top fifty to lead the Bobcats to a score of 110 points and third place finish. McFetridge sat out this race due to SAT testing so the Bobcats 1-5 dipped under 18 minutes for the first time this season without him.
"I think it was a combination of cool weather and dry air," said Norris. "All of them set their best times for this course."
The girls race was not controversial.
The Niceville Eagles placed 10 runners in the top 20 to score 20 points and outdistance Lake Brantley by 32 points for the victory.
"I really wish we could run two teams in the state series, "said Eagles LaFollette." It's one of those blessing and curses. Some of those girls won't get that opportunity to run at state."
Leading the way for the Eagles was Abbie Harrelson, the Pearland Dawson HS (TX) transfer who picked up second place in a time of 18:50.03.
"It was kind of chilly at the start. It was firm ground and a nice course," said Harrelson who has a 1600m personal best of 5:07 and a 1500m best equivalent to 5:00." I had a PR for the season so I am looking to drop that time later in the season."
Freshman Ashley Klingenberg has made a nice transition to the high school seen. She followed Harrelson through a 5:37 opening mile, extending it to 11 seconds at two miles and finishing 19 seconds ahead of Harrelson. Not bad for the freshman who sports a 2:14.84 800m personal best and still considers her best events on the track.
"I really wanted to get out really fast and see how long I could hold the mile pace," said Klingenberg who lowered her personal best by 32.42 seconds. "I held on pretty good compared to other weeks."
Klingenberg's time of 18:30.17 was historically significant. She moved to second fastest for the Bobcat Classic, less than 5 seconds shy of Lily Williams meet record of 18:25.49 set in 2009.
"We were right next to each other, "said Harrelson who moved to no. 5 on the Bobcat Classic All-Time list. " Then at the two mile mark she broke off and I just tried to hang on at the end."
Klingenberg's transition to the high school scene has seemed seamless from her middle school years. However, it has not been as seamless as it appears to be: Her practices are harder; the distance is much different than she thought it would be; in competition she sometimes gets beat down when someone passes her.
Saturday, everything worked in her favor.
"They've been training me to go out at 6 minute miles. I think I did that without a watch today. I didn't look at any mile marks so it was really just me against how I felt," she said. "It [Cross Country] is sort of relaxing. You have to push just as much, but in it's own little way. I think I could I could have pushed a little more. But I keep second guessing myself in the end. I think next week I will be able to break my time again. "
Next week Klingenberg will test herself against the state's best- something she is looking forward to. She thinks sub 18:30 is a possibility. "I'm nervous, but excited. I want to see how I rank up against them. I know there a good amount of freshman running really good times. I want to see how I rank against them too. "
The Eagles LaFollette is eyeing a berth at the Nike Nationals and he hopes he can get his group under 19 minutes. The prospects are good as he said Hannah Schneidewind and Erin Eubanks had break out races on Saturday. Sometime number 1 and 2 runner, Claire Crist was diagnosed with a stress fracture two weeks ago, but there is a chance she will return by season's end.
"I told the girls if they want to have a shot to make Nike Nationals, they have to go under 19 minutes," said LaFollette. "We would love to do that. I told the girls if we do well at state and have a realistic shot to do well, we want to go to Cary and see what we can do."
Next week will be another litmus test for the Eagles. Being in the panhandle, they don't get to see the top teams. The trip to Gainesville was four hours and a trip to Titusville would have been seven. Next week's FSU Pre-State meet will be just a 2.5 hour drive to face the state's best.
"We are looking forward to running against everybody," said LaFollette who teaches AP and Honors Biology. "We can't travel every weekend. We've planned the season to gear up for PreState amd the state series."
Despite Norris' topsy turvy season, he still took pride in staging the precursor of the big invitational. His 36 years of hosting an invitational has not been lost on him.
"We go out of our way to spend more money than any meet with the exception of the flrunners.com," said Norris who this year spent $700 on JV and Varsity awards. "We do the best we can for the kids. They love it. They always have."