National indoor mile champion Nevada Mareno (center) is flanked by teammates G'Jasmyne Butler (L), the state 800m champion, and Hannah Willard (R).
For the group of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds before me, Flo50 #18 Green Hope High School has dominated the North Carolina cross country scene as far back as they can remember.
But fellow Raleigh area team Leesville Road may be ready to flip the script this fall, as the Pride is led by national indoor mile champion Nevada Mareno, who is breaking records in every race after her first summer of cross country training.
"Cross country was always just something to do for fun," said Mareno, who bypassed outdoor track to play a final season of high school soccer with her graduating sister. "I never thought I had much potential for cross country, I never thought I was built for it, I thought I was built more for miles and 1000s and stuff, so I figured I'd put in a lot more summer work."
The summer effort is already paying dividends for the junior, who recently took down the state's best runners at the Friday Night Lights with a school record performance of 17:38 for 5k. Mareno, who placed fourth at the North Carolina state meet last fall, owned a personal best of 18:07 before this season.
"I still have bigger goals so we'll get there," she said. "I want to break 16:50. Go big or go home!"
Mareno's got a solid group of teammates behind her, as the Leesville Road girls took fourth at the 2014 state XC meet and placed runner-up in the 4x800m at New Balance Nationals Indoor. The team ran evenly with a conservative Green Hope last weekend to place runner-up, 52 points to the winning 38 points, at the Friday Night Lights.
"It's crazy to think how much the team's progressed as a group," said team captain Taylor Hemming.
One key runner missing from the mix thus far is G'Jasmyne Butler, an 800m specialist and defending state champ for the distance who is also a dependable top five contributor during cross. She is taking a slower approach to the beginning of the season after a long track season that saw her run 2:11.07 and win the USATF National Junior Olympic title.
"Seeing them score so well last Friday and coming so close to beating Green Hope... gave me even more hope for the state meet," Butler said. "With all the training that I'm doing now, I'll definitely have something to give."
Another key factor for the Pride is Emily Pettis, a transfer from Millbrook High School who could conceivably step right into the No. 2 position. She placed 24th at the 2014 state meet and owns PRs of 5:12 for 1600m and 11:11 for 3200m.
Go Pride! #LeesvilleRoad girls are ready to be the best team in North Carolina & the Southeast region! They will start with the @adidasrunning XC Challenge at Wake Med this weekend. #crosscountry #squad #swag #gopride #bunclub
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But the Pride has their eye on their first Nike Cross Nationals berth as well as the state title. They'll have another test this weekend at the adidas XC Challenge at the WakeMed Soccer Complex in Cary, where they will face Southeast rivals and Flo50 #17 ranked Riverside High School of South Carolina. The course conveniently doubles as the site of the Nike Cross Southeast Regional meet.
The only crux to the plan could be if Mareno decides to go for a Foot Locker berth, as the Southeast Regional qualifiers for both national meets are held on the same day. But November 28 is more than 10 weeks away. Until then, there's plenty of training to do...
Watch out for the full Workout Wednesday videos with Leesville Road, Green Hope & Riverside to drop later this season!