In the pandemic-shortened, oddly timed 2020-21 season, Northwood cross country was one of the county’s premier programs. The Chargers’ men’s team — consisting of junior Colin Henry, senior Malachi Levy, senior Glenn Porter, sophomore Christian Glick, senior Carter Pippin, sophomore Jackson Adams and junior Andrew Kimbrel — placed eighth in the state (1:28:03.52) for the second-straight year at the NCHSAA 3A Cross Country State Championships, while junior Caroline Murrell earned all-state honors by placing 10th on the women’s side of the state meet.
With Northwood set to begin its 2021-22 cross country campaign on Aug. 26 in a home meet, the News + Record sat down with Chargers Head Coach Cameron Isenhour to discuss last year’s success, how he plans to replace the now-graduated senior leaders and the chances that the women’s team could make it to the state meet this year.
Isenhour competed in Division II track & field at Mars Hill University in 2013 before transferring to UNC-Greensboro, where he earned a degree in Business Administration. He’s a USA Cross Country and USA Track & Field-certified coach and has since coached at the youth, middle school, high school, NAIA and Division II levels. He was an assistant coach at Belmont-Abbey College in Belmont prior to becoming Northwood’s head cross country and track & field coach in 2018. He’s entering his fourth season as the Chargers’ head coach.
CAMERON ISENHOUR: One of my favorite moments was definitely seeing the team all together again for the first practice. Even though they were in masks, they were excited to see each other, talking, interacting with each other and just having fun. We do an annual scavenger hunt and I always look forward to doing that. It’s a little different in masks, but we made it work. And just seeing them grow and become better athletes and students was great.
The key to last season was making sure everybody was doing their part, whether that was our No. 1 runner going out with the lead pack or our three, four and five runners sticking together. And what made it work was the consistency and the discipline in training, doing what we needed to do day-in and day-out to make the necessary progressions to get better. The boys do a phenomenal job pack running and that’s one thing I stress and the reason we’ve been eighth in the state the past two years, thanks to our proximity of runners.
With them leaving, our gap will close and we have very hungry underclassmen with Colin (Henry) doing a great job of leading and taking that No. 1 spot. and then Christian Glick, Jackson Adams and Matt Sullivan are all juniors who are sticking together, and then Andrew Kimbrel, who also does a great job of staying in that pack.
On the men’s side, I’m really excited to see Noah Nielson. He’s a soccer player, basketball player and track runner. He moved to the area from Utah over the summer and he’s currently our sixth guy, he’s very athletic, very good and a good student, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. The biggest surprise will probably be Matthew Sullivan, who is in our top five. He has worked extremely hard, serving either as our eight or nine runner last year. And he’s had a big summer. He’s one of the best of the guys in terms of mileage, so I’m excited to see what he will do.
On the girls’ side, I’m excited for Emma Serrano — she had a phenomenal outdoor track and field season, breaking 6:00 in the mile and 13:00 in the two-mile. Along with another senior, Ella Hennessey, she’s really starting to get into shape and she actually had her best workout yet on Friday. And with the loss of Tessa Yell, that really hurt our leadership with her being an all-around student athlete and team leader, but her younger sister, who will now be a senior, is going to get back out there and as a 20:03 5ker, she can really push us along.
Caroline Murrell, your top women’s runner, came out last season and not only ran cross country, but also ran track and even became a state champion at the state meet in June. How has that track & field state championship win fueled her this offseason?
I think she’s gained a lot more confidence. She now knows what it takes to win a state championship against some of the best girls in the state. And the girls she competed against from Weddington, Cuthbertson, Chapel Hill and Topsail are all moving up to 4A. She’ll have to learn how to run from the front, due to the caliber she is, and the realignment, but she’s going to be phenomenal. I do expect her — I know it’s early but — to win the 3A individual crown for the women in a really fast time. She also does a phenomenal job of being a leader for the girls, mentoring the younger ones and just serving as that role model and that liaison.
Currently, there are not any restrictions for cross country. No masks, no pods. Last year, it was difficult to put runners together, just because of the COVID-19 restrictions. At the state meet, the boys had to run in the slower heat, so now they’ll be able to run against the best competition and, as you know, competition brings out competition. We’re also able to be together more before the season.
Last season, we didn’t have much time together. This year, we’re also getting inside the weight room in the hallways and the gym, with masks on, of course, which is something we couldn’t do last year. We can run together, we don’t have to stagger start and finish times, so it really makes training a lot easier on my end and it gives the athletes somebody to run with and somebody to push.
The summer’s been looking good. We’ve just been steadily increasing our mileage. We’ve started to do more anaerobic work, VO2 max work, just still incorporating those easy miles because it is early, but it just gets the kids turning their legs over, as I like to call it, focusing on different paces, running different parts of the course and just getting ready for all the demands that racing is going to entail, both physical and physiological.
Our numbers are a tad down. I have anywhere between 17 and 20 guys, but I had 20 full-time guys last year, then last year I had 17 girls, this year I have 11. So numbers are down, but I hope for them to rise next year. Hopefully COVID has come and gone, so hopefully the numbers will increase, as well, but we do have a big group. It’s about 32 total. They really work hard, they come to practice every day. I like the team we have this year.
For the women, it’s just going to take getting girls out — the boys, they always have more to pull from. We don’t have the depth that we have on the boys side, we have four really good runners and then have younger ones that have not been on varsity before that will have to fill those five, six and seven spots, which are very crucial, so those spots will be younger, while on the guys side, it will be athletes who have been there before, with the exception of one or two.
The fans should be excited because these guys and girls have worked extremely hard. They’ve put in a lot of work over the summer, running by themselves in the hot, in the cold, early morning, late at night, while they’re on vacation, all of it. The trail is looking really phenomenal, too, and it’s just a nice culture and team camaraderie. This year, our theme at Northwood is “All-In,” so we really want to have the community out there and involved with music playing, kids running around, cheering on our Chargers at our home meets.
The reason I’m excited is because the last time the girls made the state meet was the year before I got here in 2018, so it’s been almost four long years since that’s happened. I know we’ll go back this year, it just depends on how we can place at the region. Losing a few girls hurt and not having the numbers and depth, but I do believe we’ll get out of the region. And I’m really excited for the men, most of all because we have a chance to win — a very good chance to win — Northwood’s first team state championship. Teams have come close, like basketball as recent as last year and cross country back in 2004 and then other teams over the years, but it’s been elusive for Northwood. The boys are ready to win. They believe they can win. I believe they can win. I look forward to doing that on November 6th.
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