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High school boys cross country: A different Julian leads, but South still comes out on top

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Eli Julian has gotten used to running alone, and that didn’t change on Thursday.

The South Rowan sophomore, who has sprouted longer legs and added wirier muscles since that odd COVID winter season, clocked 16:28.55 on the revised course at Dan Nicholas Park and won by more than a minute over a surprising runner-up — West Rowan sophomore Ethan Wilson.

“This course is challenging, but it’s well-marked,” Julian said. “It was very muddy today, and we were splashing and sliding around, but I still was able to set a good pace.”

It was easier for him last season. His older brother, Noah Julian, a three-time county champion, set the tempo and showed the way. Eli’s job was to stay on Noah’s heels and to assure the Raiders of 1-2 finishes.

But Eli is more than a clone of his sibling, who is now a freshman runner at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Eli attacked running harder and earlier in life than Noah did, so his ceiling is higher. To put things in perspective, Noah won the county title on the old Dan Nicholas course as a sophomore with a 16:59 clocking. Eli is significantly ahead of that pace.

Whether he’ll keep getting better, stronger, smarter and tougher as Noah did only time will tell, but no one doubts that potential greatness resides within Eli. Carson’s Zach Marchinko (15:44) set the bar high, but Eli’s got the heart, the wheels and the head to run 5Ks as fast as anyone in the county has ever run them.

“Eli is already like an assistant coach, said South’s new head coach Tyler Downs. “This guy is a running machine. Whatever you ask of him, he can do it.”

While Julian, the fastest 3A sophomore in the state,  knows he’s going to win just about every race he enters, the motivation to produce quick times comes from a lot of places.

“I’d say mostly it’s my uncle’s times that motivate me,” he said.

His uncle, Benjamin Frick, was a two-time county champion for East Rowan in 1992-93. Frick ran 16:15 to win in 1993.

While Julian is special, cross country is very much a team sport, so he was as excited about Thursday’s team victory as his individual victory.

It was South’s fourth county championship in a row.

“It was a very good win for all of us,” Julian said.

South placed five runners in the top 14 for a winning score of 33. Next were East Rowan (47), Carson (61), West Rowan (89) and Salisbury (127).

This is a much younger team than the senior-led one the Raiders rolled with last season.

Sophomore Grayson Cromer placed third. Sophomore Aaron Jones took fourth. Jones kicked early and he and East Rowan’s Shayden Edwards, who was fifth, got tangled up late in the race, and both went down in the mud. Both were able to get up and finish.

South’s other scorers were sophomore Brooks Hubbard (11th) and freshman Brian Hickman (14th).

“We’re very young, but these guys are crazy talented and crazy motivated, just very mentally into running,” Downs said. “I was blessed to walk into this coaching situation. With the Julians, with this family atmosphere, South Rowan cross country already was a well-oiled machine.”

The county, as a whole, is super young. Thursday’s top six finishers were sophomores, including sixth-place James Anderson, who sparked Carson to third place.

The leading veteran was East senior Thomas Ferguson, who placed seventh. Ferguson and Edwards led the Mustangs’ runner-up finish. East also put Carson Ritchie (8th) and Daniel Fabian (10th) in the top 12. That’s all-county status.

Carson sophomore Connor Price was ninth.

Carson senior Aaron Arnold was 12th. His mother has been in the hospital with surgery, so some of the loudest cheers from the gallery were for him when he accepted his all-county shirt.

Wilson’s second-place finish in a PR of 17:31 also received loud acclaim.

“I finished 11th in the county last year and wasn’t really taking the sport seriously,” Wilson said. “But now I am serious about it. Now I can see what I’ve got in me and I’ve got a chance to do this in college. Today was a PR, but I still left a lot out there on course.  I can go faster. The goal is to catch Eli one day, but today the goal was just to keep him in sight. If you can still see Eli, you know you’re running a pretty good time.”

Wilson’s rise has been exciting, but like most cross country days in the past four years, this one ultimately belonged to the Raiders.

“We tell our guys to go out there and try to keep up with Eli,” Downs said with a grin. “This team is like a big chain. Link by link, they keep pulling each other forward.”

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