Adversity hit Will Pinson like a brick this fall. But the Huntsville High senior kept believing, and he ultimately was rewarded for his faith.
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
* Huntsville's Will Pinson claimed the AHSAA Class 7A title on Nov. 6 in Oakville
Photo Credit: Alabama Runners
There was a pivotal moment in Will Pinson's cross country season that changed everything.
It started in October, over in Room 290 at Huntsville High School.
It's where Panthers head coach Blake Borden teaches during the day.
It's also where the varsity squad met following two straight losses to open up the season at the Southern Showcase in Alabama and the Wingfoot XC Classic in Georgia. Just a day after the team's first win at the Lake Guntersville Invitational on Oct. 2, the Panthers made a declarative statement.
"We talked to Coach Borden and said, 'We aren't accepting anything other than first place from this point forward," Pinson said.
Perhaps he meant that for himself, too.
Which is kind of crazy when you consider a few things: Back in early September, Pinson was coming off a hamstring injury that limited his training and led to his worst finish in a Huntsville uniform ever: 167th in his first race of the season.
Then, a few weeks later, and just five days before the Alabama State Class 7A Cross Country Championships in Oakville, he learned of a stress fracture in the second metatarsal of his right foot.
But here's where it gets interesting: He never lost again.
That vision in classroom 290? Huntsville and Pinson kept their promise.
A rather unbelievable final 17 days saw Pinson, a University of Alabama signee, win his last three races, each a little more impressive than the last, before he claimed Huntsville's first individual state cross country championship in school history on Nov. 6, in a career best 5K time of 15:13.61.
"That was the first individual cross country title Huntsville had won in over 50 years," Pinson said. "Realizing that I accomplished that hit me after the race. It was mind blowing. I couldn't have dreamt of anything more."
It also marked the fourth straight team title for Huntsville under Borden, which is also saying a lot because Pinson's been a part of every one of them.
"That was one of the most emotional times I've ever been as a coach," Borden said of his athlete's win.
This coaching-athlete relationship has been core to Borden's first few years at Huntsville. It's been one of the more fundamental aspects of his tenure, in fact.
Pinson's father died when he was just three years old, well before he even knew him. When Borden pulled into his life, the pair connected on both the athletic and familial level.
Borden was just 30 and learning what it meant to be a coach, to be a figure in young men's lives. Pinson was learning how to navigate high school and how to learn from others; which are the kinds of lessons that fathers impart on sons early on in lifetimes.
It took time for either to understand one another.
"His background, what he went through as a young man, that amplified that role for me," Borden said. "We had hard times. We had times when his mom called, 'You need to come get him. We're not in a good place right now.'
"He would come to our home and we would have dinner. Just the three of us, me, my wife and Will."
But even from the start, Pinson always understood the requirements of cross country. As a freshman, he finished 13th at state. He followed with a sixth-place finish as a sophomore and then was ninth as a junior.
Heading into the fall of 2021, Pinson had developed into one of Huntsville's most accomplished runners ever. He credits a lot of his successes to Borden.
"He's been the most impactful person in my life," Pinson said. "When he saw me in tryouts in middle school, he came up to me after some time trial. He gave me a shirt and spoke to my mom about what kind of future I could have in running.
"If he didn't do that back then, I don't know where I'd be right now. I can't thank God enough for that. He's truly been the best."
Of course, Pinson's senior season has not been an easy one. While he entered the fall as the kind of runner who could potentially pick up national recognition, whether by virtue of ranking or at the national meet, injuries and setbacks got in the way.
I knew it was me or him. If I stuck on him, I had a chance. I wasn't going to pick anybody over me. So my attitude towards it was, 'I'm going to race.'" -- Will Pinson
Just days before he ran at The Southern Showcase, Pinson had been training sporadically. He had run just one workout. He would go on to start the race at John Hunt Park, but he soon realized he was not going to have a great outing.
He finished in 167th.
"I've had a lot of trials and tribulations," he said. "But thankfully I had good teammates. They were by my side."
Signs of life came to focus the next week at Wingfoot, when Pinson crossed the line in 11th. If given 800 more meters, Borden believed Pinson may have been top three.
"He moved up 65 spots from the mile to the finish," Borden said.
After Lake Guntersville, where Pinson finished third, he promised himself he would give nothing less than 100-percent. Wins followed at metro and sectionals.
Over that span, Borden made sure to dial in some specifics. He needed Pinson to realize it wasn't about how you started, but about how he finished. He drilled in tactics.
"I tried to get him to understand that you don't have to hammer ever race in the first mile," Borden said. "I think that helped him see it from a different perspective."
Of course, adversity continued to come Pinson's way. He found out that his grandmother died just hours before his sectional race. And then about two weeks out from state, Pinson began to worry about his foot.
At sectionals, he could hardly cool down. In the days to follow, he tried to examine it from his own eyes, feeling the bones beneath the skin, pushing and prodding. He Googled and then read, his glasses nearly touching the computer screen. Then he self-examined, later coming to the realization that he had to see a doctor.
Just five days away from state, he heard two words no runner wants to hear.
But Pinson didn't fret. The doctor said the bone cartilage in his foot was actually healing. So Pinson took mostly off over the next week, cross training on the bike and running lightly over that stretch.
"I didn't go hard with the intensity," He said. "I knew I had a good shot to still run."
Patience proved to the be difference.
In fact, even as Pinson trailed late into the race, by roughly 10 meters, he kept diagnosing what it would take to win.
"I knew I was a front runner," Pinson later said. "And (St. Paul's Episcopal's) Mac Conway, he's outstanding. But I knew it was me or him. If I stuck on him, I had a chance. I wasn't going to pick anybody over me. So my attitude towards it was, 'I'm going to race.'"
With 1K to go, Pinson saw one of his friends, the AHSAA Class 6A winner, Miles Brush. Pinson had beaten him nearly a year prior on this very course.
"I saw him and he said to me, 'Will, make the same move you made on me," Pinson said. "I knew from there, I was good."
Pinson sat, and then he held, and then with 400 meters to go he let it rip. All guts.
"That was all mine," he said.
"I tried to get him to understand that you don't have to hammer ever race in the first mile. I think that helped him see it from a different perspective." -- Blake Borden
Borden didn't even see the finish. He had posted up along a treeline roughly 800 meters from the finish and coached his runners through the marker. Pinson was chasing Conway the last time he saw him. But Borden sensed he was making a move.
"I saw he was riding off Conway," Borden said. "I said to myself, 'He's finally doing it. He's being tactically efficient."
Borden thumbed on his phone just a few minutes later.
Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.
"When the results pulled up and I saw that he won, I lost it," Borden said. "All the memories just came flooding into me."
Pinson threw his hands into the air, flashed that big smile of his. And then he waited for his teammates, the next scoring four, and then the ensuing five , as Huntsville scooped up another state win. Perhaps the most impressive yet.
It all came riding back to that Oct. 2 meeting. That moment of clarity for everyone.
"I was so proud of the team of stepping up and getting a big win," Pinson said. "We started the season a little shaky. But an ending like that, we couldn't have asked for anything more."