Cross country teams prepare for state meet in Nashville

The Bearden boys cross country team has been running for a state championship all season; with the help of Olivia Gianeselli, the girls now have the opportunity to be running for one on Saturday. At the region championships on Oct. 27, the boys team won going away, with Bryan Fitzsimmons coming in third place, Skylar Winchester in fifth place, and Cory Oegema in 11th. No team in East Tennessee had been putting up times to compete with Bearden all season, and it showed at the meet at Victor Ashe Park. What showed in the girls meet was a tad more surprising, even for the winning team’s own coach. “Totally surprised, I’ll be honest,” Bearden Coach Steve Prince said. “It’s been since like ’75; that’s the last time they were state runner-up.” Gianeselli finished fourth, Rebecca Stover in fifth, and Tru Powell in eighth. While most Bearden students could tell you that Stover, who has committed to run at the University of Alabama, is fast, few know much about the Bulldogs’ top finisher, a runner who did not run competitively until this season. “I kind of ask everybody else what to do,” Gianeselli said. Not even Gianeselli thought the girls had much of a chance to win the region. “We definitely did not expect to beat Hardin Valley,” Gianeselli said. “We just wanted to make it to state.” Gianeselli has been a gem for the Bulldogs this season, as they ran many of their meets without Stover due to Stover’s soccer conflicts. With Gianeselli topping Stover at the regional meet, she has become the Bearden girls’ number one. “(Gianeselli) is just really good to begin with and she’s just really driven,” Harvey said. Having Gianeselli alone did not propel the team to tops in the region, though. “These girls care,” Coach Prince said. “The talent is in the school. The talent is always in the school.” Fourth on the team is Alisa Harvey, who might have been most improved if not for the top rookie. She too feels the attitude on the team has changed. “We actually know we can win this year,” Harvey said. Winning meets is one thing; winning the state meet is entirely another beast. “I think we have a really good chance,” Gianeselli said. “Especially compared to how we did at regions.” The state title was never the goal of the season for a team that hadn’t won the region in 36 years. Now, the team definitely has their eyes on the podium. “I think we’ve already had a successful year, but getting top three at state would be awesome,” Harvey said. As for the guys, the state title seems so close and yet five kilometers away. Perhaps the preseason favorite for the state title, the Bulldogs are now not even expected to put up much of a fight for nationally ranked Brentwood High School. The proverbial target has shifted backs. “The pressure is more on them than us,” Coach Prince said. But Brentwood is not invincible; the pressure they’ll face in Nashville on Saturday could easily bring them down. “They only have five solid runners,” junior J.J. Shankles said. “If just one of their people has a bad day, their number six runner is way back there, so we could have a solid chance.” Added Fitzsimmons: “Any given day, anything can happen. That is what we’re hoping (for) against Brentwood.” The Bulldogs, however, do not have the luxury to have anything close to a bad day in Nashville. “No one can have a bad race, one through seven, because the goal of the six and the seven is to get in front of their five guy,” Coach Prince said. “They all have to run the best meet of their life.” The Bulldogs feel like they are ready, though. The meet will not be anywhere close to the toughest of their year. “We’ve gone out of state and raced against much harder teams than are in the state,” Shankles said. They also feel that their own unique style will help them disregard the pressure. “It’s just a real close knit group,” Coach Prince said. “Both teams, they just have a lot of fun.” Like on Tuesday while running four miles through West Hills – they sang four Christmas carols. The guys team may have more inside jokes than a pair of middle school girls and may hang out twice as much as the average sports team, but that is just the way they roll, or run. “(The guys’ friendship) is a little weird, but it’s fun,” Gianeselli said. Perhaps the sport itself breeds the closeness. “You just get to know everybody on the team and interact because you share the same, common pain,” Fitzsimmons said. Pain is what cross country runners deal with on a daily basis, but the pain the boys would face after a poor race on Saturday would be hard to take, even if second would be the highest Bearden has ever placed. “With the team we have, the most satisfying thing would be a state championship,” Fitzsimmons said. “I’m indifferent to second place; sure, it’s Bearden’s best, but we won’t settle for anything less than a state championship.” As both the guys and girls cross country teams look to out-run expectations on Saturday, Shankles is sure to keep the mood positive. “You still get a big trophy for second,” Shankles said. But don’t expect to see smiles on Bearden’s runners if they return from Nashville with anything less than first place. For Bearden Cross Country, state championships are now the goal.