GREER – Riverside High’s Natalie Williams, knowing she would be running for an injured teammate, had a little time to think about her first varsity cross country race Saturday.
However, seventh-grader Anna Yang was eating cinnabuns in the gym at Dorman High School about 30 minutes before the Class AAAA Upper State championship when Warriors coach Eric Cummings informed Yang she would be running in her first varsity race. A teammate had taken sick, moving Yang into the top seven for the day.
Williams finished 23rd, and Yang came in 31st.
“We went back and looked, and they would have been in the top five on almost all the other teams,” Cummings said.
But not on Riverside’s team. The Warriors’ top five finished first, third, fourth, seventh and eighth.
South Carolina Upper State Cross Country Qualifier, Saturday, Novermber 1, 2014 at Dorman High School.
Riverside was first with 23 points. Dorman was next with 72, which is why the Warriors are heavily favored to win their second straight Class AAAA championship when the state meet is run Saturday at Sandhills Research Center in Columbia.
Last year, Riverside won by the widest margin in the history of the state meet, 127 points. And despite losing two of their top seven, the Warriors haven’t exactly taken any steps back this season.
“I think one of the reasons we do really good is that we have each other to push each other, and some other teams don’t have that,” said sophomore Cate Ambrose, the Upper State champion, whose personal-best in the 3.1 mile course is 18 minutes, 7 seconds.
Cummings said his top four — Ambrose, sophomores Ashley Fallow and Abigail Smith and freshman Carter Marchbanks — have all run national elite gold standard times, which is 18 minutes, 45 seconds or faster. The next three — seventh-grader Jessie Crowley, junior Emma Spencer and sophomore Mikie Harris — have run national elite times, 19:20 or better.
For good measure, the next seven are under 20:35.
And the wealth extends to the boys program. The cross country team has 65 girls and 63 boys.
“The boys are the same way,” Cummings said. “They’re deep and they’re solid, no big, big front-runners, but we’re packed up.”
But the girls team is really deep, really young — not a senior among the top 10 — and competitive on a national level. Riverside’s girls team is No. 2 in the Southeast and No. 18 in the nation according to the MileSplit Network.
Last year, at the Coaches Classic in Columbia, an event that serves as sort of a precursor to the state meet, Cummings said someone made a comment about how Riverside was “sandbagging” just to win the junior varsity girls race, in which the Warriors had seven of the top 17 finishers.
Uh, not quite. Riverside had seven of the top 31 in the international (top) race and won by 128 points.
This year, a couple of the names have changed in the top seven, but it’s been pretty much the same story — a herd of Riverside girls at or near the front of every race.
Fallow, who only ran a few races in cross country last year because of stress fractures in both feet, had a strong track season and has carried it into the fall. Crowley, the other newcomer, finished seventh in the Upper State.
“I feel like that’s part of the reason I am where I am right now,” said Fallow, the Greenville County champion, “because I have really great friends that are top runners with me, and we can push each other to be the best that we can be.”
At this year’s Coaches Classic, Riverside had four of the top eight finishers and won by 78 points. At the Wendy’s Invitational in Charlotte, with teams from various states, Ambrose, Fallow and Smith took seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, and the Warriors won by 51 points.
Last month, in the top race at the Disney Classic in Kissimmee, against teams from all over, Riverside put five runners in the top 23 and finished second.
“Our top runners typically never have anybody to train with who is close to them,” said assistant coach Heather Greene. “They’re all close to each other in times, so that’s good. They can train together, and they can push each other.”
“And they know that someone’s right behind them to take their spot if they slip,” Cummings said.
And someone available to take their spot if needed, even if it means missing out on a cinnabun or two.