Winchester, Fitzsimmons leading boys cross country toward state title goal

Jacob Steimer

Throughout the summer, a group of Bearden students was running five and six miles a day in the July heat. The point? To be in the best possible shape for a 3.1 mile race on Nov. 5. This group of boys thinks that they have a great shot at winning the state cross country meet in Nashville that day, perhaps the best shot Bearden has ever had. “We’ll definitely be the best team Bearden’s had in 30 years,” senior Skyler Winchester said. Winchester has contributed to Bearden’s varsity team since freshman year and is one of the best runners in the state. “There is something in Skyler where he can flip a switch, and his race changes completely,” teammate Bryan Fitzsimmons said. “He has another level in him.” Fitzsimmons, a junior, and Winchester are the two stars of the team. While Winchester is usually the better of the two, Fitzsimmons beat Winchester in a July 4 race, and the two have a friendly rivalry going. “I don’t let Bryan beat me,” Winchester said. Bearden cross country coach Steve Prince could not be happier with the rivalry. “Running against each other, even in workouts, they are great for each other,” Coach Prince said. The rivalry has proved its merit throughout the past races. “One time Fitzy went to pass Skyler during Bryan’s freshman year, at Disney,” Coach Prince said. “They went from seventh and eighth place to fourth and fifth trying to pass each other.” Fitzsimmons recognizes the benefits in his own career. “If there is someone you can stick with, both of your running styles come together,” Fitzsimmons said. “It makes both of you better.” Winchester and Fitzsimmons are not the only Bearden runners close in speed. Though there is generally a gap after those two, the Bulldogs then have a pack of six that stick close together during races. So the Bulldogs have eight premier runners, but only seven varsity spots that they can fill for each meet. “None of them can rest on their laurels of last week’s performance,” Prince said. “They know they have to compete hard every week.” Senior Matt Sturgill is one of the runners in this pack and recognizes the benefits of the team’s relationship. “We have people who are stepping up,” Sturgill said. “We are all pushing each other, not just other teams pushing us. That is what is going to make us great this year.” Senior Ben Pollack thinks that competition within the team also helps out on the course. “If it’s like two or three miles into a race and (a teammate) starts passing me, I’ll pick it up,” Pollack said. As close as this team is in times, they’re even closer outside of practice. “This is the closest group of guys and gals I have ever coached,” Coach Prince said. They hang out a lot of weekends and, in one memorable instance, painted up to see one of their runners play soccer in the spring. “Recently, it has kind of become more of a family,” Fitzsimmons said. “I think because we have a smaller team, we are a lot closer. It makes us a stronger team.” This team thinks that they are strong enough to win state, but they do have certain goals before that day in November. “First of all, beat Hardin Valley,” Fitzsimmons said. “Second, we want our top seven runners under seventeen minutes, and then we also want to win all our races.” Hardin Valley took home the state championship last season, and they look to be one of Bearden’s biggest competitors this year. “For this year, our coach has specifically put us in races with Hardin Valley,” Sturgill said. “So that they know that they’ve been beaten by us.” By the state meet, the Bulldogs and Hawks will have met in four different races, a tactical decision by Coach Prince. “One time, Farragut won state after Oak Ridge had beaten them seven times,” Prince said. “The more times you run somebody, the more you know their weaknesses.” Regardless of the fact that Hardin Valley won the state meet last year, the Bulldogs feel like the target is on their back. “Whenever you’re ranked in the top five, everyone watches you like a hawk,” Coach Prince said. “It is fine to have a target, though. I’d rather be the one everybody is shooting for.” Coach Prince welcomes the pressure, and it is clear that this is a team that will not be satisfied unless they bring a state championship back to Bearden High School.