When the Heathwood Hall girls cross country team first won the Coaches Classic championship division race in 2011, it came as a surprise.
That they have won the race each of the two following years — including this past Saturday at Sandhills Research Park — is no surprise to the Highlanders. But it is still a big confidence boost.
“Before the first time we won, we were finishing maybe 30th among 50 teams out there. We weren’t even in the top half. So to go out there and win, it was a surprise victory. We surprised ourselves; we surprised a lot of people,” said coach Willis Ware, who has led the Highlanders for 10 seasons. “That was the result of the team being built up over the previous five years, and it has just kept building since then.”
“It’s very encouraging each year, given that we’re such a small school, to go out and compete with public schools and do extremely well,” he said.
The Highlanders have become accustomed to success. In 2012, led by senior Brooke Grice, the squad captured the SCISA Class 3A girls cross country championship.
Grice, the team’s lead runner for three seasons, has moved on, but the Highlanders have remained on course because of their competitive nature.
“It’s a very competitive atmosphere, as we’ve taught the girls over the years, the more competitive they are with each other, the more competitive they will be against other teams,” Ware said.
Junior Sydney Ellen, who led the Highlanders on Saturday by placing third, said working to keep pace with Grice the past few years helped her prepare to be the team’s leader on the course.
“It’s really working out well, they’re pushing me from behind like I used to push Brooke, as I’m pulling them,” Ellen said. “Now, we’re running more like a pack, and every race people are getting closer and closer to me.”
In the Coaches Classic championship, the Highlanders’ No. 2 runner Molly Joseph, No. 3 Harriet Rogers and No. 4 Katie Beach were separated by 15 second intervals.
“We’ve gotten better, and, looking at the times, we’re all closer together,” said Rogers, a junior. “It used to be just Sydney and Brooke competing at the front, but now it’s a group of five girls competing for the top spots every race.”
So no one should be surprised when the Highlanders keep coming out on top.
“As long as we have the desire and the talent, we’ll continue to stay a competitive team, not only in SCISA but against teams around the state,” Ware said.