The Stakes Were High For Caden Leonard This XC Season

* Southlake Carroll's Caden Leonard won his first Class 6A cross country title on Saturday

Photo Credit: Annie Rice/Lubbock Avalanche

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ROUND ROCK, Tex. -- Caden Leonard found himself at a turning point in June. 

It happened precisely after he crossed the line in ninth -- i.e. last place -- during the UIL Texas State Class 6A 3,200m final. 

It was there when he realized that being good just wasn't enough. To make that next step, he needed to treat every day with an extra layer of passion. Earning small victories started to feel more important. 

"This summer," the Southlake Carroll sophomore said, "I went into every workout as if it were a state meet." 

This fall, Southlake's practices were bulldozing sessions that saw its runners battle tooth-and-nail in some of the hardest workouts they've ever endured. Those moments, however, led to something larger: A No. 5 national ranking and one of the program's best squads in years. 

"In practice, if you were having a bad day, you were going to get exposed," Southlake Carroll coach Justin Leonard said.

On Saturday, all that work landed the team with arguably its most impressive performance under Justin Leonard's leadership. The Dragons won their fifth straight UIL Class 6A Cross Country state title at Old Settler's Park with 48 points; Carroll also saw three runners finish inside the top 15 places. 

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Caden won the Class 6A race outright in 15:00.10, becoming his father's first individual state champion. 

"It's surreal," Justin Leonard said. "It was a really good day. Coming into it, we knew it was going to be tough. It wouldn't be easy. I was super proud of them." 

For Caden, who finished sixth in Class 6A last year as a freshman, it was resolve after that disappointing moment at outdoor states in June. 

"After that race, I went through a hard point," he said. "I wasn't happy with it." 

Little was in doubt on Saturday. Caden took the lead into the first mile, then held off Austin Vandegrift's Hudson Haley (15:04.20) and Bridgeland's Benjamin Montgomery (15:06.70) after crossing the bridge with roughly 600 meters to go. 

It was a fitting moment for the coach's son. Caden had won four races over the fall, including regionals the week before.

"I haven't processed it yet," Justin Leonard said. "It was fun to watch, fun to see. You're looking for him to see how he's doing, but also, I was thinking, 'Where's my five at?' I'm proud of him and his execution of today's race plan." 

Photo Credit: Cory Mull/MileSplit 

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There was added motivation elsewhere, too. There was the Southlake squad, which covered the course with a 15:21 average and 44-second spread, to the handfuls of alumni who drove to Round Rock to watch the Dragons perform. 

There were also handfuls of students (teammates who didn't make the varsity roster) who rose in the early hours of the morning, hopped on a bus and drove south. When the team finally reconvened after the morning's races, Justin Leonard was speaking to a group of 70 to 80 people.

His voice heightened only after a few seconds. 

"This is what it takes," he said. "Hard work. That's it. Work Ethic!" 

Those who circled around him knew why he was being so adamant. The season wasn't over.

The Southlake Carroll boys and girls -- who finished second in the other race -- still had two more races to take care of in November and December. 

"Our goal is to win NXN," Caden said. "It's a long shot. No one believes in us. That's the best motivation to go do it. When teams think they have you. They don't."

"Coming into this season, the goal was to see how well we could run in the postseason," Justin Leonard said later. "We've pushed some stuff back. I'm excited to see how we can do."  

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