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Tuscola cross country preview: Mounties go full-steam ahead

Aug. 12—The Tuscola cross-country teams are facing different challenges as they prepare for their 2022 campaigns.

The boys' team needs five runners to compete for team honors, and the Mountaineers have only four runners on their current roster.

"It's not so great for the guys as a team," said head coach Kevin Fitzgerald. "However, I've got a couple of guys that are returning runners, Jordan Lombard and Noah Clancy, who are solid performers who will be vying for spots at the state meet as individual qualifiers."

The boys' roster includes senior Jordan Lombard, sophomore Noah Clancy, sophomore Hunter Sollie and freshman Austin Thomas. Missing this year will be standout runner Christopher Wells, who is concentrating on soccer.

"Noah has been fun to watch, to see develop right before your eyes. He's getting bigger and faster. He's the top dog right now. He's really getting after it," Fitzgerald said.

Clancy recently competed in the sprint race at Lake Logan, which includes swim/bike/run and finished in eighth place overall in a field of 77 competitors.

Fitzgerald said Lombard brings senior leadership to the squad, and described Thomas as "awfully talented."

"He's got great attitude, big heart and lots of potential," Fitzgerald said of Thomas.

Sollie ran track last season and will run cross country this season.

"He plays soccer and will run when he can when we have a meet that doesn't conflict with soccer," Fitzgerald said.

Girls ready to run

Coming off a 2021 season that saw the girls finish fourth in the regionals and at state, many of the Lady Mounties runners return to add to last year's success.

"I've got my usual group that I've had since they were sixth graders in middle school," Fitzgerald said.

The Mountaineers are returning the top six runners who all competed at state last year, with a total roster of 14.

"We are led by team leaders Eva Rinker, Faith Dougherty, Selah Hill, Alexis Stevens, Annalisse Phillips and Skylar Ball. Joining that elite group are sophomore Luci Snyder-Lowe and freshman Olivia Arnold," Fitzgerald said.

Rinker had a strong post season last year, culminating in a 19th place finish at state and leading Tuscola to a fourth place finish.

"Eva is the leader of both teams. She sets the tone and work ethic. Even though the teams compete separately, they train together, they travel together, they celebrate together and cheer each other on, and they consider themselves one big team," Fitzgerald said.

There's not a lack of talent on the girl's squad, either, which creates a problem for its coach.

"There are several meets on the calendar where I can only enter seven runners. After the first two weeks of official practice, I do a 5K time trial at the lake and that tells me who my top seven are going to be for the first couple of meets. I'm not locked into this roster and obviously some people get stronger, there are injuries so I will mix up the entries accordingly," he said.

Season prep

The Mounties have been busy over the summer improving their skills. The team participated in conditioning and circuit training sessions two times per week at the school.

"We're trying to stave off some of those lower leg injuries that these kids have at this age. Most of the running is on concrete and asphalt, which is hard on their legs. It's hard to get the volume needed without punishing the legs. I watched a lot of these kids get stronger over the summer, see muscles get bigger. We're doing muscular endurance type training, we do a lot of course stuff and upper body arm stuff. We have had a great turnout," Fitzgerald said.

Expectations are high for both teams.

"We need to keep everybody healthy, and to peak in terms of our training and cycles right around our conference meet in mid-October. Once you get to that point, you're basically maintaining the speed and the fitness through the regionals and state meets. You run two tough races seven days apart. They should be able to run the best times in those two weeks. I think the girls have the potential to win the conference this year and to do as good or better in the regional meet and as good or better in the state meet this year," Fitzgerald said.

Despite a lack of bodies, Fitzgerald is confident in his boys' team.

"I explained to the guys that if we don't have five runners, you still have the opportunity to qualify for the regionals and state as an individual. I think both Jordan and Noah have the potential to qualify for both. Andrew Delbene did it last year for us. That's the incentive to work hard," he said.

The Mountaineers have a full schedule of eight meets extending into October for the Mountain 7 Conference Championships and the regional competition.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association State Championships are being held Nov. 5 in Kernersville.

Most meets include a maximum of seven runners per team and the course is usually 3.1 miles or 5K. Teams will qualify for team scoring with a minimum of five runners. Scores are determined by the position placing of the runners.