* Deer Creek's top runner, Graham Mitchell, led Deer Creek at the Marcus T Invitational
Photo Credit: TTFCA/Texas MileSplit
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Nobody can point to an exact date when things changed. Maybe it was just a feeling. Maybe it was once the world resumed after COVID.
But one thing is certain.
Cross country teams in the South region are ready for new players to earn their seats at the table. Will this be the year when a non-Texas team unseats the powers-that-be with a ticket to nationals?
"Everybody deep down wants to see if they can be the best and compete against the best," said Deer Creek High School head coach David Riden, 47, whose team trains out of Edmond, Oklahoma. "When you get into this, you want to give yourself a chance. And, if you've done everything you can and you come up short, at least you gave yourself a chance. For us and this group, we want to give ourselves a chance. We are not calling our shot, but we want to give ourselves a chance."
There's no guarantee anything changes in 2023. But this fall, a few teams are beginning to take steps.
One among them has been Deer Creek, a nine-time Oklahoma state team champion. The boys of Edmond currently sport the third-fastest 5K average in the U.S. at 15:35.76. Riden, the man leading them, has been in charge of the unit for the past 21 years; he's also a lifelong Oklahoman.
There is no better person to see this team's mission out than Riden.
Other programs in the South, such as New Orleans Jesuit (LA) and Bentonville (AR), have also made major strides in recent years.
The Antlers opened their season on Sept. 2 at the Marcus T Invitational in Denton, Texas, dispatching last year's Teas UIL Class 4A champion Canyon, along with Class 6A third-place finisher Coppell and Flower Mound. It was a performance worth nothing for the team's battering of Texas top-flights, an Oklahoma squad not necessarily known to hand out wins like that.
Riden thought the effort was appropriate; he had no doubts. But he's also aware of conversations that may arise from it, along with monikers like "sneaky" and "underrated" and "underdogs." In some ways, the Antlers will run with that.
That's because Deer Creek has never reached NXN. But neither has Oklahoma stalwarts like Owasso, Edmond North or Mustang, or nationally-ranked Bentonville and New Orleans Jesuit. No one has unseated the Texas powers yet.
And the truth is, Texas teams have been better. The last time Deer Creek ran at NXR South, in 2021, they finished eighth.
"We're used to doing well in Oklahoma," Riden said. "Then you go to NXR and you finish 13th. You ask yourself, 'What's going on?' I thought we had a good team. What's the difference? What are we missing that all of these schools in Texas have?"
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Programs like Southlake Carroll, Flower Mound, Grapevine and The Woodlands have annually booked trips to Portland. Maybe it's access to better meets, higher student populations, more resources. Those variables may be X-factors.
But maybe change is coming, too. Riden says he began to think outside the box after the team's return from COVID in 2020. That November, Deer Creek lost a rescheduled cross country state championship by five points. He began to forge a professional rapport with high school coach Doug Soles, a former national champion coach who led Herriman (UT) to a podium finish in 2022. Conversations over email led to insight.
"Once you broaden your perspective, it changes the way you train and talk to your team," Riden said.
Riden's team won another state title in 2021, but the Antlers lost the Class 6A trophy this past fall. Another lesson. Even the most prepared teams can fall on race day.
This year, however, with a sturdy group of upperclassmen -- Riden's entire top seven returned in 2023, with six of them moving into their senior years -- Deer Creek's outlook has been hopeful.
"Nobody in this group really wants to take anything we're doing for granted," Riden said.
"When you get into this, you want to give yourself a chance. And, if you've done everything you can and you come up short, at least you gave yourself a chance. For us and this group, we want to give ourselves a chance. We are not calling our shot, but we want to give ourselves a chance."
The Oklahoma squad worked hard over the offseason. It's showed.
That being said, the team remains even-keeled. No one runner is getting ahead of themselves, nor has the team been expectant of its success. The Antlers understand that they are only as good as their last race. Every new race is proving ground.
Riden says he knows the only way to change past fortune is to execute on race day.
He sees signs of that every day.
"One thing I've noticed is their resilience," he said. "We know the road to NXN goes through (Southlake) Carroll. That's how it goes. But what stuck out to me is that when Carroll did not race, they didn't let it affect them. They raced like they would have raced with or without Carroll. To me, that says that this group gets it. You race. You don't worry about who's around you."
Next up on the calendar is the Oklahoma State University Jamboree, followed by the Chile Pepper Festival in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Antlers have showed they're capable of rising to the occasion so far this fall.
Time will only tell just how good they'll become.