PITTSBORO — Last week’s Chatham County Championships were as much about the rise of emerging talent as they were about the dominance of usual suspects.
Northwood played host to the Chatham Central Bears, Jordan-Matthews Jets and Seaforth Hawks last Thursday for each team’s season-opening cross country meet — aside from Chatham Central, which ran in a home meet against Southwestern Randolph on Aug. 23.
Despite the meet’s championship-bearing name, there was no hardware given out to the winners. But if there was, the Chargers and Hawks would have claimed all of the medals.
On the men’s side of things, Seaforth freshman Jack Anstrom took first place with a 5K time of 17:38.99, more than a minute faster than Northwood junior Christian Glick (18:46.09), who finished second.
For the women’s portion, Northwood senior Caroline Murrell — one of those usual suspects — ran a dominant 19:54.05 that gave her the win with relative ease.She finished nearly two and a half minutes better than her second-place teammate, senior Emma Serrano (22:16.22).
“She practiced with the boys (this summer), but today, she was out on her own for most of the race,” Cameron Isenhour, Northwood’s head cross country coach, said of Murrell after the meet. “She won by 2 minutes, 22 seconds, and a lot of the races are going to go like that. If you come to a cross country race in North Carolina, expect Murrell to be first and if she’s not first, she’s going to be right there.”
As a team, Northwood swept both the men’s (21 points) and women’s (15 points) competitions, with Seaforth (40 points in men’s, 48 points in women’s) taking second place. In the women’s race, the Chargers had a perfect score, meaning the entire top five consisted of Northwood runners.
Chatham Central (92 points) and Jordan-Matthews (99 points) finished third and fourth, respectively, in the men’s competition, while J-M placed third (80 points) in the women’s race. Chatham Central, only having three participants on the women’s side, was not eligible to compete as a team.
One of the biggest storylines from the meet, however, was the unexpected arrival of Anstrom — the only Hawks runner to place in the top five of the men’s race — who, on the day after his 14th birthday, beat out Northwood’s top two juniors, Glick and Matthew Sullivan (third place, 19:13.42), and top two seniors, Colin Henry (fourth place, 19:23.94) and Andrew Kimbrel (fifth place, 19:28.89), to claim the top spot.
Before last Thursday’s meet, Anstrom hadn’t run an official race since 7th grade.
That same year, he attended the final Chatham County meet to compete for a county title, but decided not to participate because “the nerves got me,” Anstrom said, beginning his year-long hiatus.
This time, however, things were different. Nerves didn’t appear to be a factor. He wouldn’t let them.
“I was like, ‘This is going to be my redemption tour, I’m going to build my confidence again and get better,’” Anstrom said mere minutes after winning the race at Northwood. “(It’s all about) building up confidence and building up strength. It feels good to be back out here.”
Even after his victory, Anstrom could be seen strolling along the sideline of Northwood’s football field, near the course’s finish line, cheering on his teammates with a bottle of water in hand, sweat pouring from his face and loud, supportive screams echoing from across the field.
“He ran that super fast and he just brings a lot of fearlessness (to our team),” Duncan Murrell, the Hawks’ head men’s cross country coach, said after the meet. “He’s been interested in running for a long time, but he hasn’t been training for more than a few months. … He’s so excited to be out here.”
“I liked that they were enthusiastic for each other,” Murrell added. “The boys cheered on the girls, the girls cheered on the boys, they were happy for each other. That’s what we want for the team.”
It didn’t take long for Seaforth — in its first season as both a cross country program and a school, having just opened this fall — to earn its first-ever individual win on such a tough course, with three others placing in the top 15.
In addition to Anstrom, sophomore Ethan Becker (19:47.58) placed sixth, sophomore Harry Mendlovitz (20:47.23) placed ninth and freshman Will Cuicchi placed 11th, rounding out the Hawks’ top-15 finishes on the men’s side.
“This is a hard course, this is a real cross country test here,” Duncan Murrell said. “We came out here and we did what we wanted to do, which was race, finish the race and do the best we could out here. It was a hot day, it was like running in a sauna out there, but on the boys and the girls side, we showed a lot of heart and grit. That was good for us.”
For Duncan Murrell, last Thursday’s meet was nothing short of a family affair, as he watched his daughter, Caroline, and four of her Northwood teammates finish ahead of Seaforth’s top two women’s runners, sophomore Caroline Bartee (sixth place, 25:55.59) and freshman Claire Morgan (seventh place, 26:41.30).
Despite him coaching the Hawks’ men’s team — with Tanelle Smith coaching the women — he made a point to cheer for his daughter as she made the turn at the 1,600-meter mark and strolled past the spectator’s area.
“I’ll tell you, I thought it would be no big deal for me to be out here coaching one team and then seeing my daughter run for the other team, but I felt a little weird about it,” Duncan Murrell said. “Because I think some of my happiest moments have been cheering for her. … She’s a better athlete, a better person than me in every way and I’m constantly impressed by her. I feel like she has no ceiling.”
Since winning the track & field state championship for the women’s 3,200-meter run in June, Caroline Murrell took some time off to celebrate and let her body rest, then got right back on the saddle to prepare for this fall’s cross country season.
Last January, she placed 10th individually in the women’s race at the NCHSAA 3A Cross Country State Championships. Thursday’s meet was just one step in the direction to claiming her second state title this calendar year, which would be her first in cross country.
“I guess (my expectation for this season) is to win another state championship and get a big (personal record),” Caroline Murrell said after the race. “(I want) to assert myself as one of the top girls in the state again.”
However, as entertaining as it was to see Caroline Murrell blow by her competition in yet another local meet, perhaps an even larger story was the Northwood women’s performance as a whole.
Behind Murrell and Serrano, Northwood senior Emma Iacono (third place, 24:33.47), senior Ella Hennessey (fourth place, 25:22.93) and freshman Avery Adams (fifth place, 25:47.76) rounded out the top five, solidifying the Chargers’ perfect score and creating optimism for a women’s team that missed out on qualifying for the state meet last season.
“I think we have a really good chance (to go to states),” Caroline Murrell said. “This was a big confidence booster for a lot of us.”
“I feel like this was a big motivator for the women to see that, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Isenhour added.
The Chargers and Hawks — who accounted for 19 of 20 spots in both races’ top 10s — weren’t the only ones in attendance, with the Bears and Jets also making the trip to Pittsboro to take on their intra-county rivals.
The top runners for Chatham Central were junior Kailey Green (women’s 10th place, 29:08.82) and freshman Luke Gaines (men’s 12th place, 21:21.04), while Jordan-Matthews’ best performances came at the hands of junior America Cunalo (women’s 12th place, 29:25.93) and junior Aiden Harrison (men’s 20th place, 23:12.42).
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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