A Culture Forged On Trust Has Built Huntsville Into A Winner

* Huntsville's top five typically consists of Jackson Danner (middle), Will Pinson, Gabe Scales, Matthew Cobb and Jackson Nguyen

Photo Credit: Chris Wells/AlabamaRunners

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Perhaps the most defining aspect of the Huntsville boys cross country team's success in 2020 has been the trust everyone has put in one another. 

Consider the last few weeks, or maybe the last few months, for the No. 7 ranked team in the country

On Thursday, Huntsville junior Will Pinson secured a win at the AHSAA Section 7A-4 race at John Hunt Park, which marked his first win of the season. Two weeks prior to that result, senior Gabe Scales claimed the Huntsville Metro XC Championship. That was his first victory.

Then there's senior Jackson Danner, who has been the team's No. 1 finisher in most races across the fall. He's won just one race this season, too: The program's season debut at the Black & Gold Classic. 

What it all means is that on any given day, any one member of Huntsville's squad can step up. 

"Confidence and consistency comes from all of us when we step on the line and we look over at a teammate and know they're all going to do their part to help our team win," said Danner, who is part of a 1A-1B-1C lineup the team has often scored.

That trust is one reason why Huntsville might very well be having its best season in school history. The two-time defending AHSAA Class 7A champions, who have the second-best average for a top three in the country, could be on their way to a third straight on Saturday in Oakville at the state championships. 

If the Panthers can accomplish that goal, it would be head coach Blake Borden's third title in five seasons. 

And more than that, Huntsville is also fighting for respect not often bestowed upon Southern teams who have yielded in bigger meets. 

Across 2020, Huntsville has been unbeatable. The squad has won seven straight meets, from big outings at the Chickasaw Invitational, The Southern Showcase and the Jesse Owens Classic, to meets like the Huntsville Metro Championships. 

"I've tried to build our program around the team first," Borden, 33, said. "To have these type of guys back me up with that. On most teams in the state -- going further, a lot of teams in the southeast -- they would each be the No. 1 guy. To have three of those guys duke it out at practice and in workouts." 

Five years ago, Borden, a former collegiate baseball player, certainly had a vision.

One of his first objectives was finding athletes who bought in to the concept.

Ultimately, a simple idea was forged: If you put in the work, you'll see the results.

Two of his first recruits were Danner and Scales, who joined the program as eighth-graders -- Alabama allows 10 athletes from one team to compete in state championship races, including eighth-graders.

"They bring that work ethic," Borden said. "They model success, what it takes. They didn't come from superstardom to start with. That's what I'm proud of, the development over the course of their career." 

But while that first team in 2016 didn't make it to state, the next one day, and the Panthers began to see their work rewarded, finishing second in Class 7A. 

Two more titles have followed since. The Panthers have logged point totals of 52 and 26, respectively. Borden now has roughly 100 members of his cross country team. In football rich Alabama.

But this team could be his best yet. 

"I'm excited about what they're going to do," Borden said. "Not only at state but at sectionals (the team scored a perfect 15). I want to set the state record for the lowest points scored at state." 

"We've been here," Scales said. "This is our fifth year on the team. And it's been really special to see how far the team has come."

To be fair, Pinson was major addition, too. In his first race as a freshman, he broke 16 minutes and won the Scottsboro Invitational in 15:52.38. While he's a year younger than his two counterparts, he's got just as much desire and potential. 

"In the eighth grade Coach Blake graded me," Pinson said. "I flipped the switch in my head. The next week I quit soccer to focus on track. I'm thankful coach sought me out for that." 

Now Huntsville is searching for history. Borden said the program won two state titles over the 80s, but three straight over this decade would be a record -- and the most in a single-stretch run. 

There's also the added motivation of what the team hasn't been given the opportunity to accomplish. When NXN was canceled in July, it negated a chance the Panthers had in finding redemption after a disappointing 12th-place finish at Team Southeast Regionals in 2019. 

"I've been really impressed with these guys," Borden said. "I feel like (this season) it's galvanized them and brought them together. They needed somethign different to prove themselves." 

While Huntsville won't get a chance to qualify for, or compete, in a traditional national team championship, the team intends to continue its season after state at the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships.

It's even being held on their home turf at John Hunt Park. 

"It's definitely a place where we can prove ourselves," Danner said. 

But of course, Huntsville doesn't want to get ahead of itself, either. 

Just last week, MileSplit No. 5 ranked Cincinnait St. Xavier (OH) lost to in-state rival Lakota West at its OHSAA Division I State Championship. So the Panthers know, even if they are considered the favorites to repeat in Alabama, that nothing will be guaranteed.

Still, they all have expectations of themselves.

"Team wise, we want our top five in the top seven," Pinson said. "We can blow the team score out of the roof ... we really want to shine at state." 

And ultimately, a performance for the ages could leave a lasting impression on future teams at Huntsville.

Scales is headed to Ole Miss next fall, while Danner is determining his future. Pinson will most likely get an opportunity to run collegiately in a year, too. 

All three will be gone soon, but the program's next crop of runners is just forming. 

"I think another thing is wanting to leave a legacy behind," Scales said. "Winning state this year would definitely be a big thing for us. Leaving a legacy and continuing our winning streak, and for years to come having a dynasty that Coach Blake has built." 



What: The AHSAA XC State Championships

When: November 14

Where: Oakville Indian Mounds Park, Oakville

Schedule: Here.

More Information: Entries.

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