* Defending Wingfoot XC Classic champion Joe Sapone could go after history on Friday
Photo Credit: Dan McCauley/Georgia MileSplit
CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- With two defending champions returning on Friday for the Wingfoot XC Classic, we're expecting some fireworks.
But could we see history?
If nothing else, that will be a key storyline to watch as the races unfold under the lights at Sam Smith Park. The girls meet record of 17:17.60 came six years ago by a legendary name: Saratoga Springs' Kelsey Chmiel.
That might be a hard hill to pass, but perhaps within sights is that sub-18 barrier. Five girls from three states have broken that time over the meet's history, including Elizabeth Funderburk (2017), Hannah Miniutti (2019), Morgan Vaden (2019) and Samantha Rogers (2019).
Defending champion Ruby Little was just eight seconds shy of the time a year ago.
Meanwhile, the boys race also features a pretty big benchmark: Only two boys have broken 15 minutes on this course in the meet's 8-year history.
Trinity Dublin (GA) graduate Jacob McLeod was the last to do it in 2017, clocking a time of 14:50.22 in arguably the race's most dramatic finish ever -- he beat Milton's Sam Bowers by just three hundredths of a second.
No boy has broken 15 minutes since.
But returning Georgia state champion Joe Sapone, nicknamed the 'Flying Hawaiin,' is back and perhaps as fit as ever.
Could we see that history get broken on Friday?
We profiled seven of the night's top athletes heading into the Wingfoot XC Classic championship races below.
Joe Sapone, Holy Innocents' Episcopal School (GA)
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Insider Tips: Defending Wingfoot XC Classic champion; 14:58.09 at the Garmin RunningLane XC Championships in 2021.
Breakdown: The defending champion earned a dramatic victory at the line last year at Sam Smith Park. But what's more, he followed that victory by earning a state championship in the private 1A division in Georgia, then broke 15 minutes at the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships.
All that is to say, Sapone is a different runner at this point. A very different one. And by Friday, that confidence should lead the Georgia athlete to the finish line, perhaps as a two-time champion come nightfall. We think Sapone has the speed, mettle and guts to win this race again -- if nothing else, he proved it last year.
Ruby Little, Marist (GA)
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Insider Tips: Defending Wingfoot XC champion; 17:39.32 at the Warpath Invitational on Sept. 17, finishing 1st; 18:16.57 at the AT&T Starr's Mill Panther XC Meet, finishing first.
Breakdown: Two races into the 2022 season, Little has found out what winning time is all about. She's a perfect 2-for-2 after victories in her opener and at the Warpath Invitational last week.
Better yet, in that most recent race Little ran her overall 5K PR of 17:39.32. Moreover, she's the returning Wingfoot XC Champ.
Perhaps the stars are aligning for the Marist junior on Friday.
Maxwell Hardin, Auburn (AL)
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Insider Tips: 15:22.35 at the AT&T Starr's Mill Panther XC Meet on Sept. 3, finishing 1st; 15:04.45 at the Southern Showcase in 2021.
Breakdown: If we had to guess, we would put Hardin in the conversation for contenders. He opened his year with a win and an impressive time 15:22.35 for 5K on Sept. 3, then followed two weeks later with another victory, this one coming at Oak Mountain.
Across three races, he's a perfect 3-for-3. Considering his season came up short last year -- he didn't race past October -- we think Hardin is motivated to have his best season yet in 2022.
A win at Wingfoot XC could be a signature prize before the state championships in November.
Aidan Brancaccio, Saint Anthony's (NY)
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Insider Tips: 13:08.20 for 4K at Regis Invitational on Sept. 17, finishing 2nd; 16:20.80 at the PTXC13 Invite on Sept. 10, finishing 2nd.
Breakdown: The boys of Saint Anthony's are, in my eyes at least, the favorites in this race. No team has a better spread than the Friars. Brancaccio will be a key reason for that. He's the team's No. 1, which means he sets the tone.
But Brancaccio's coach, Tim Dearie, has said he's looking for a front-runner to emerge on his squad, too. Can the senior elevate his level on Friday? He's finished second in his first two races, but Wingfoot XC has more depth and better competition. We have a feeling he'll break 16 minutes here and, in the process, maybe even lead his team to victory.
Lydia Cromwell, Brentwood (TN)
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Insider Tips: 18:21.76 at the Southern Showcase on Sept. 17, finishing 8th; 18:35.06 at the Voyles Classic, finishing 5th.
Breakdown: Cromwell has not won a race just yet. She might just be in the hunt here. Nevertheless, her performances thus far have been enlightening. She was eighth at the Southern Showcase last week in 18:21.76 and was fifth at the Voyles Classic and second in her opener.
If nothing else, the sophomore has proved one thing: She's always going to be in the race at the end.
Brody Chapman, Brentwood (TN)
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Insider Tips: 15:12.73 at the Southern Showcase on Sept. 17, finishing 12th; 15:19.95 at Voyles Classic.
Breakdown: The senior from just outside Nashville, Tennessee clocked a career best time at the Southern Showcase last week, hitting 15:12.73 on the clock. But so far across three 5Ks, he's been on the mark: All three performances have been under 15:33. He also opened his year with an impressive two-mile time of 9:24.90.
Chapman's strategy here could be to run in a way that elevates his team to the Wingfoot XC title, but watch out for him in the last mile -- he's sure to make a dent in this race then.
Henry Strand, Vestavia Hills (AL)
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Insider Tips: 15:37.99 at Chickasaw Trails Invite on Sept. 10, finishing third.
Breakdown: The younger brother of Ethan -- currently with the University of North Carolina men's XC program -- is amidst an important junior year.
With cross country occupying a larger focus this year for the talented junior, he opened up his year with a third-place finish at the Chickasaw Trails Invite, tops for Vestavia Hills. Friday will mark his first venture to the Wingfoot XC Classic.
He should be among the contenders to compete for a title.