High school cross country: South girls back on top

Published 10:22 am Friday, October 13, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — The 2020 cross country season was the one that almost didn’t happen because of COVID.

But on Dec. 9, teams gathered at Dan Nicholas Park for a chilly edition of the Rowan County Championships, an event that dates back to 1985.

Carson’s girls ruled that day, 1-2-3-4-6, nearly a perfect score, with individual champ Camden Corley and runner-up Makayla Borst battling down the grassy closing meters neck-and-neck.

Only three of the freshmen who lined up for that meet in December 2020 are still competing in cross country as seniors.

Two of the three are South Rowan Raiders. Madison Beaver and Blythe Elliott became county champions on Thursday on their fourth try at Dan Nicholas Park. South, coached by Rebekah Frick Julian, won its first title since 2018. Carson had won four championships in a row.

Beaver has been a rock for the program. Seventh as a freshman, fifth as a sophomore and junior and fourth as a senior —  all-county four straight seasons. The top 12 runners make all-county.

Elliott has been the heart of the program, especially as a senior, with the unexpected death of her mother, Jackie Elliott, a South art teacher, as this season was just getting started. In the pre-Rowan County Meet, less than 24 hours after her mother’s death, South’s girls ran together, content to go however fast Elliott could make herself go. They weren’t worried about times or where they finished. The only thing that mattered was that Elliott finished.

But Thursday was different. This time South came to Dan Nicholas Park determined to win, and the Raiders did.

Elliott, who finished 20th as a freshman and 18th as a sophomore, works hard enough that she trimmed three minutes off her 5K time by the time she was a junior. She placed sixth last year. She was at her best on Thursday — 22:29, 29 seconds faster than she ran last year. She took seventh for her second all-county medal.

South’s victory was one those total team things. South won with 4-5-6-7-9 — 31.

Carson, which has been either first or second in the county for 10 straight seasons, had two runners (runner-up Emily Landaverde and third-place Julia Burleson) finish ahead of any of the Raiders, but the Cougars totaled 41. East had the individual champ, Sadie Featherstone, but had to settle for third in the team scoring.

“It is a little unusual to win when fourth is your highest individual, but this a very special group of girls, a close team, and I’m so happy that our seniors were able to win a county championship,” Julian said. “Lindsey Beaver (Madison’s sister) gave us her best race of the season today. We got great leadership from the seniors. We got great times from our 4, 5 and 6 runners.”

Julian is excited about the state of the program, even with three seniors.

Madalynn Gulledge, who placed fifth and Gracie Hinson (ninth) are young. Brinley Patterson is young. She participates in  cheerleading as well as cross country so she doesn’t get to do running workouts as much as some of her teammates, but she finished 13th on Thursday, just missing all-county. She finished ahead of Carson’s fourth and fifth runners.

South had more promising runners in the jayvee race, and there’s a female Julian on the way, Hope Julian, who has the same genes as her brothers Noah and Eli, perennial county champions, will be a South freshman next fall.

“Our seniors have laid the groundwork for some good things for the program,” Coach Julian said. “Winning county means a lot to us. I love all the history involved in the county meet, and South won those first two (in 1985 and 1986) when this was all getting started.”

South added to that history on Thursday. It was the fifth championship for the South girls. Carson, Salisbury, West Rowan and especially, East Rowan all have had cycles where they’ve ruled the county. The only time South ever has won back-to-back were those first two county meets.

Elliott, easy to spot with her pink shoelaces, stood in the middle of her teammates when it was over, her hands gripping the brand new county champions plaque that includes a list of all the winning teams over the years. It’s been a good two weeks for Elliott, homecoming queen and now the team she loves is the county champion.