Distance runners are the only high school athletes with a chance to compete in two seasons during a school year.
Long-range runners can have a significant impact in both cross country in the fall and track in the spring.
Lexington has been at the forefront of cross country/track in the state in recent years, culminating with an outstanding showing in the 2012-13 school year.
In the fall, the Wildcats’ boys cross country team became the first Class 4A team to win fourconsecutive titles and the Lexington girls won their first championship in the final season for legendary Midlands coach Catherine Lempesis.
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“It’s been done before, having the boys and girls from one school win it all, but this is special,” said Lexington cross country coach Bailey Harris, who coached the girls team for eight seasons before shifting to the boys side in 2006.
“The boys’ goal from the very beginning of the season was to become the first 4A team to win four in a row, and everybody knew that if the girls were ever going to win one, this was the time. Catherine is retiring, a number of seniors are graduating and the opening of the new school (River Bluff) is going to hurt the girls program more than the boys.”
In the spring, Lexington pulled off a surprise second-place finish at the 4A state track meet a year after winning for the first time, even though one key runner had been disqualified in the qualifier and another suffered a broken arm in a fall.
Lexington’s rise to cross country power can be traced to 2002 when Joshua Walker became the program’s first individual state champion.
“I really believe the seeds were planted when Josh showed how much commitment is needed to be good at this sport,” Harris said. “He’s the guy who established the work ethic in the program that has become the foundation of our success.”
Walker mentored two eighth-graders — Will Belue and Drew Harris, Bailey’s son. They were the senior leaders on the first championship team in 2009.
“Will and Drew were inspired by Josh, but it wasn’t until another group of young runners joined the team and bought into the program,” Harris said.
“Getting the first championship just made the young runners want to keep it going. The most remarkable thing about our success is that it’s the runners themselves that police the program. They push each other hard in practice, so much so that sometimes we run better in practice than at meets.”
Harris said Lexington’s runners know that individual glory in cross country is meaningless unless there is quality support from back in the pack.
“It takes five good runs to win big meets, and we’ve been very fortunate to have guys who understand that even though only five of the seven starters actually score for the team, any of the seven guys out there may be the key to winning. Cross country is very much a team thing.”
The Lexington girls cross country win also was a model of team efficiency. The first Wildcat to hit the finish line was senior Meri Henage, but Lexington’s tight pack netted a 100-109 win against Wade Hampton. The Wildcats’ top four runners hit the line between the 14th and 19th positions.
Henage, Bari Robinson and Katelin Killman — three of those key up-front runners — joined forces in the spring for a gold-medal run in the 3,200-meter relay.
Since the rise to glory, Lexington has had one other individual champion — Tony Morales in 2012. More telling, the Wildcats have had 13 all-state finishers (top 15) during the championship run.
Morales, Colby Coulter and Blake White have made all-state three times, Zack Langston twice.
Since 2009, the Wildcats have had no fewer than three all-state runners at any of the four state meets.
Lexington’s sense of history and commitment will be put to the test in 2014. Veterans White and Erik Wendt have graduated.
“I’m sure some people are thinking we’re going to be vulnerable, but I’m not so sure,” Harris said. “We still have great leadership, and the young kids understand what is expected. I’m confident they’ll eat the right way, put in their miles during the summer and come out for practice ready to go. We’ve had a sense of history, and maybe that will continue to motivate us.”
The girls will face a bigger challenge without Lempesis, who retires with 18 cross country and track state championships and eight runner-up finishes on the resume at four Midlands schools — Spring Valley, Richland Northeast, Ridge View and Lexington.
Two coaches in South Carolina history have claimed more championships rings. Gary Adams has 21 (19 in softball, two in boys basketball) at Crescent and Bill Porter guided 18 Irmo tennis teams (boys and girls) to championships.