It usually helps Walton’s girls cross country team when it can bunch up and stay among the front of the pack.
Last year’s Class AAAAA state champion placed four runners in the top 30 of Saturday morning’s Class AAAAA/AAAAAA race of the Clara Bowl Invitational and won convincingly over runner-up Harrison.
The Lady Raiders prevailed with 77 points, with the Lady Hoyas a distant second at 145.
Marietta (273) also secured a top-eight finish, as did Lassiter, thanks largely to Morgan Ainslie, who was the individual champion with a time of 19 minutes, 6 seconds.
In the boys race, Marietta came within four points of winning. The Blue Devils, instead, had to settle for second behind Mill Creek, with Ben Pleak (15:59) taking second overall to lead the Marietta runners.
Mill Creek was crowned the boys champion after placing three runners in the top 10.
Walton’s Alexa Womack who was in the same front pack as Ainslie for most of the girls race, was the only Walton runner to break 20 minutes. She went on to take fifth overall in 19:24.
Sara Hardin (20:23) crossed the finish line 11th, Cristina Gnecco (20:39) took 15th, Avery Bussjager (20:43) finished 17th and Gretchen West (21:10) was 29th.
“I was very proud of the race they ran (Saturday),” Walton coach Travis Gower said. “We tried to be a little aggressive. With the field so big, we had to get in front early. We just tried to keep as many red jerseys together as possible. The tighter the pack, the higher we score.”
The Harrison girls applied the same strategy as their Cobb County counterpart, but their pack trailed Walton’s and couldn’t catch up. The Lady Hoyas did, however, place their top five runners in the top 50.
Another promising note for Harrison was that two of its top five finishers were freshman. Emily Duvaris (20:48) was 20th in her first varsity race, and Andie Whitfield was 39th overall in 21:26.
Senior Elyse Bray led Harrison with a 14th-place time of 20:33. Anna Kansol clocked in a 21:11 to finish 31st, and Natalie Johnston was 41st in 21:31.
“We were happy with the girls, and we also had new kids in the race, so we were excited to see how they performed,” Harrison coach Kent Simmons said. “It was a big race — varsity competition — and (the girls) rose to the challenge. We’re still going to find out who are top five are.”
Marietta’s Maddie O’Neil and Kyla Dawson, who both recorded times of 21.17 to help the Lady Blue Devils take eighth.
Ainslie paced herself in front of the pack for the first 2 miles. But when she saw a downhill stretch after crossing the second mile, she moved up to the front and used the final 400 yards, most of which was uphill, to kick her way into the lead.
However, Lassiter didn’t have another finisher until Erin Verdeyen crossed the line, more than 2 minutes later with a time of 21:40 at 46th overall.
In the boys race, Pleak only needed to pass the eventual winner, Austin Sprague of St. Pius X. Pleak was in reaching distance for the majority of the race, but Sprague showed he was the faster runner as they approached the third mile.
“He had more energy than me,” Pleak said of Sprague. “I think I’m going to have to work on (my kick) if that is what meets are going to come down to.”
Jake Bagwell aided Marietta’s performance by finishing eighth in 16:35. Alexander Goolsby was 18th in 17:27.
Harrison had four runners place between 20th and 40th to secure a fifth-place overall spot — Ryan Brock (17:18), Spencer Borchelt (17:26), Adam Watt (17:30) and Ben Gladstone (17:34).
The Walton boys took ninth behind Brian Sullivan’s sixth-place time of 16:29.
Mount Paran Christian’s Joey Carr was second overall in the Class A-AAAA race with a personal-best time of 16:34, behind Galloway’s Reilly Friedman (16:20).
Carr helped the Eagles take 13th overall, while the girls team finished 12th. Emily Blom led Mount Paran by finishing 32nd in 22.10.
Naomi Grand Pierre was sixth overall for the 10th-place Whitefield Academy girls, clocking in at 23:31. Robby Keough led the Whitefield boys with a seventh-place finish of 16:55.
(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal, September 9, 2012. Written by Adam Carrington. Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Walton girls take title at Berry race)