BY DARREN REESE
To say the Greeneville High School cross country teams are motivated heading into Saturday's Class A/AA state championships would be an understatement.
The Lady Devils are eager to find their way back to the top of the podium after winning a state title in 2010 and finishing runner-up a year ago. The Devils, who won state in 2011, want to atone for last week's speed bump at the Region 1 meet.
The two teams are set to travel to Nashville Friday morning, with the state race scheduled for the following afternoon at the Percy Warner Steeplechase Course. The girls will run at 2:30 p.m. CST, with the boys to follow at approximately 3:15 p.m.
"We've got a good shot to win them both," said Greeneville head coach Larry Blalock, who is in his second year at the helm of the program.
"Our girls are seeded fourth, but really any of the top six or seven teams could win it. Our boys are going into it as the No. 2 seed. All of our kids are looking forward to going down there and giving it their best."
The Greeneville squads swept the Blue Ridge Athletic Conference championships held at Tusculum College earlier this month. The Lady Devils backed up their title by winning the Region 1-A/AA meet at Daniel Boone last Thursday. The Devils, though, were edged out by Sullivan East by one point at region.
That disappointment has provided fuel for the Greeneville boys' competitive fire going into their final meet of the season.
"The upset that happened last week, we aren't too worried about it," senior Wesley King said. "We had an off day. We know we are the better team. We are working on it. Hopefully everything will go to plan this Saturday."
Central Magnet High School (Murfreesboro) is the top seed in the boys' state-wide rankings going in. The Tigers don't have a single senior on their roster. They finished eighth as a team at the state meet in 2011.
Greeneville, meanwhile, is loaded with experience. Blalock returned his top six finishers from last year's state championship team for this season, and the group is brimming with confidence as it sets its eyes on a repeat.
"We won it with those six guys last year, so there is no reason we shouldn't do it again this year," senior Jacob Norris said.
Those top six include junior Wesley Pectol, who placed third individually a year ago. Also among the returning state contributors are: King (15th last year), senior Atlas Fagudes (35th), sophomore Zach Weaver (44th), Norris (57th), and sophomore Alex Biumi (84th).
Junior Matthew Bowers helped make up Greeneville's contingent at the region meet last week.
The boys' team from Martin Luther King School in Nashville is seeded third in the state. Prior to Greeneville winning the state crown last year, MLK had run off three consecutive titles.
While the Greeneville boys are looking to erase the memories of last week's region defeat, the Lady Devils have some runner-up demons of their own they would like to bury.
The Greeneville girls figured they had a good chance to win their second consecutive state title last season, only to be edged out by Chattanooga Christian.
Blalock graduated two key contributors off the 2011 squad - Paige Bible and Allison Hall, who are both now running at nearby Tusculum College.
Early season injuries gave the Lady Devils reason for concern a couple of months ago, but they have rounded into form nicely and are also feeling confident after their sweep of the district and region titles.
"We had myself and two other girls who were out earlier in the season," said senior Chelsey Carpenter. "We were a little shaky, but we have definitely kept climbing that ladder and are in good shape heading into state."
Junior Hannah Rhodes was the team's top finisher at the region meet as she placed second behind Chuckey-Doak's Maddison Melchionna. Rhodes was also the highest-placing Lady Devil at state last season, coming in 16th.
"I was part of the team that won state my freshman year and I really want to help us win it again," Rhodes said. "We expect to come out and have our best effort of the season this weekend."
Coven Braxton, who placed 32nd as a freshman at state in 2011, led Greeneville in this year's BRAC meet with a seventh-place finish.
Carpenter came in 45th at state last year, junior Megan Bible was 86th and senior Leah Thwig was 98th. Other runners who contributed for the Lady Devils at last week's region meet were sophomore Leigh Ann Blalock and freshman Megan Cole. Freshman Sydne Stephens will also run at state.
The layout of the Percy Warner course is familiar to the returning Greeneville runners, and one of the easier ones they see all year, according to the head coach.
Blalock says the cold weather this week hasn't hampered his team's preparations any.
"We try not to go quite as fast with them, because we don't want to pull a muscle or anything," he explained. "But our basic workout has been the same as it has been in previous weeks leading up to state."
Some of the Greeneville runners actually see the adverse training conditions as a benefit.
"We're not completely immune to it," King said, "but we bundle up and tough it out. It makes us more resilient. Hopefully it will make it easier for us to run in normal conditions Saturday."
But rain, sleet or snow, the Greeneville runners will be giving it all they have in an effort to avoid any more runner-up heartaches.
"This is my last state meet," Fagundes concluded. "I've been working hard for this day since I was in middle school. It would be great to be able to say I was on a team that won state two years in a row."