The Greenwood High School cross country teams will start their 2021 season this coming weekend at the Memphis Twilight Classic, one of the top regional events for high school runners. It’s also among the major cross country events cancelled last year due to the pandemic, relegating prep runners across the nation to a shortened schedule.
But the Lady Bulldogs excelled even under those trying conditions, finishing second in the state in Class 5A, only a year removed from winning their first-ever state title. Several freshmen girls who ran on that 2019 championship team and last year’s runner-up squad are back this season as juniors, giving Head Coach Jim Andrews a strong core of experienced and talented ladies to build around and challenge for another state crown.
“If we can win our conference, I think we have a good chance of winning state.” said Andrews, unafraid to reveal his expectations for his girls. His prediction speaks volumes about the strength of the teams in the 5A West, among the best in the state. But it also highlights the confidence he has in his returning runners and the up-and-coming freshmen, who have plenty of promise.
“We’re [still] pretty young as far as the girls go, [but] there’s a lot of talent,” he added. “There are three juniors that helped us when they were freshmen win our first state title. There’s a good amount of experience with that group.” The three young ladies in question are Kaitlynne Elmore, Ashley Koeth, and Madelyn Wilkinson.
“These last few weeks Kaitlynne has really turned it on. She’s looking really good,” observed her coach. “All the girls have worked really hard this summer, but Kaitlynne’s had some really great practices. Her junior year is an opportunity for colleges to start looking at her, so she’s trying to make the best of it. She looks really strong and healthy, and that’s going to be key. If these girls can stay healthy, then we will have a really good season.
“Madelyn has been in the top ten the last two seasons as a freshman and sophomore, [and] there’s no reason she can’t be that good this year,” offered Andrews. “Ashley has been right there, very, very close, and so has Kaitlynne. Any one of them at any time can be one of top girls in the state.”
A testament to the youth of this year’s squad is evident, with only one senior on the roster. “Abi [Coston] is a senior who was very consistent last season. She works really hard and gives great effort. She’s not one of my fastest [runners], but she comes in with a great attitude, and she’s going to bring a lot of senior leadership to these girls and keep them motivated.
“We [also] have five sophomores that learned a lot last year and have grown to be better this year,” continued the coach. “They’ve all been consistent.” Andrews’ daughter (Paige) is among those improving tenth graders. “She’s had a really good summer. She’s looking every bit as good as she did last year,” said her dad with understandable pride.
While her father believes the younger Andrews may be slightly ahead of her peers, fellow sophomores Madie Cash, Addie Williams, Fallon Van Lare, and Amelia Morgan are expected to make some noise and help the team this season.
“Madie has been working hard,” said her coach. Cash is the younger sister of Macie, who helped anchor the team the last two seasons and is now a college runner. Several current GHS runners, both girls and boys, have the potential to receive college offers over the next few years.
“Addie Williams has worked hard and had a breakout season last year,” said Andrews, continuing his assessment of his sophomores. “There’s no reason she can’t duplicate those results this year. Van Lare is still learning. She came out last season for the first time, [so] she’s still pretty new. She will have a better season [this fall]. Amelia works hard and also does a great job being consistent.
“We have a very close team, and as long as they run well together, I think we will do well. We need five [girls] to run really well. Having six or seven always helps to place well at conference or state. They score the top seven, but six and seven are only needed for tiebreaking,” explained the coach, who also has high hopes for his freshmen girls.
“I’m really impressed with Carole Werner and Elizabeth Moy,” said Andrews. “Carole has a love for running. She’s done great. This year she won the (girls) Freedom Fest 5K, so she’s ready to go right now. She’s got a lot of promise and upside. She loves to run and she loves the game. It’s just exciting to see her run.
“Elizabeth has been very consistent. She’s run really well throughout the summer with some great sessions. I see her as someone who can help us at the conference and state level. She has a lot of potential.” There are five freshmen on the junior high squad along with seven eighth graders and three seventh graders.
“We started this year in June,” said Andrews. “All through the [AAA] dead period those kids were running without me. They just have a will to keep pushing. We took 40 kids to a run camp [at] Eagle Rock, Missouri. This was our third time to go. It’s about 45 minutes from Rogers (AR) and about 30 minutes from Branson (MO). It’s an Assembly of God camp. They have cabins and they feed us, so it’s a really nice situation for some team bonding.”
Asked about coping with the summer weather conditions in Arkansas, the GHS coach said, “We trained in the mornings, but now that school has started we’re back to afternoon sessions, which is a little tougher and a little more challenging mentally and physically.”
On the boys’ side of things, the name of junior Noah Embrey is front-and-center after finishing second in the state last year and leading his teammates to a seventh-place finish overall. He is one of six juniors on a varsity squad with three seniors and only one sophomore. The real encouraging numbers are found on the junior high level with 30 runners in grades seven through nine, portending a bright future.
“Noah is still our top guy,” proclaimed the coach. “He’s our leader and has a great work ethic. He was #2 last year at state, so Noah has the ability and opportunity to do some great things this season. He’s had an excellent summer. Noah is going to be the guy to watch in state. He’s going to be flying. It’s going to be neat to see him in our first meet in Memphis against some great competition.”
Another top male runner for the Bulldogs is senior Trey Merreighn, according to Andrews. “Trey is working super hard. He’s had a great spring in track, and I really think he wants to do something good in his last season.
“We’ve got one move-in from Nevada, Joshua Johnson,” revealed the coach. “He came from a little different system than what we run here, so he’s just trying to get used to the heat and humidity and my kind of workouts, which are different than what he was doing.
“He’s shown me or told me he’s run some great times. Gaining him has helped, so our guys still have a lot of possibilities to make a big run this year. I think they could be surprising. I’ve got a great group of juniors. In another year this is going to be an exciting group to watch,” added Andrews.
One of those juniors is David Ambriz. “[He] has a little brother named Pablo, a ninth grader that runs well too, so I’m going to have another brother [duo] on this team,” said their coach. Other juniors on the squad include Hudson Trice, Lucas Wittig, and Kacee Radney.
“I think there are 10 ninth-graders I have that are really ready to start contributing to this team,” said the coach excitedly. “We have a lot of youth, but a lot of experience too. Our lone sophomore (Christian Wheeler), if he can get back to the level he was at last year, he could have a great season [too].”
Asked to name his top guys in the pre-season, Andrews said, “Noah, Joshua, Christian, Trey, with a couple of ninth graders in the mix” referring to freshmen Rhett Williams and David Coggin. “Rhett had a really good 5K at the Fourth of July race and has worked really hard.
“There’s probably seven or eight kids who can vie for the third through seventh positions at any time. Once we get to conference and state it’s going to be something to see these boys compete to make each other better.
They could [do] really well this year, but I think the ninth graders are still a little raw and it may take another year. But as far as junior high goes, I think they will have a great season. It’s going to be neat to see how they stack up. It’s going to be fun over these next two years. The younger grades have been really good,” said their coach.
“[The varsity boys] finished seventh last year, which was an improvement over the previous year. We want to be in the top five this year,” revealed Andrews. “Mountain Home, the returning state champ from last year, still has a lot of depth. Lake Hamilton is always strong and Russellville and Vilonia both have some young talent. It’s a tough conference for the boys.”
Throughout the interview, Andrews continuously stressed the need for good health among his runners. “Anything can happen when you run. It’s not a contact sport, but you can turn an ankle, strain a hamstring, or go down with shin splints. It’s the little things that can set us back.”
Potential injuries aside, Andrews said his teams are ready to compete. “We’re ready to race. I’m ready to see them [run]. I think it’s good for them to race,” he added before talking about Greenwood’s first meet this coming Saturday.
“We didn’t get to go last year because of Covid,” he said of their upcoming trip across the Mississippi River to Memphis. “This one is a twilight evening race, which is a little different. We’re racing at night under lights. It’s a bigger atmosphere with a lot of great teams from that side of the state of Arkansas, plus Tennessee, Mississippi, and even Missouri. It’s a good meet early on with good competition to get [our runners] fired up.”
Speaking of Covid-19, Andrews is happy about the loosened restrictions this season, but knows that caution is advised. “We’ve still got to watch some protocols, obviously, but I think we’re going to have a pretty good season without [Covid] hindering it too much, but it can change in a heartbeat.” Besides the Memphis trip, the GHS girls and boys are also planning to run in the annual Chili Pepper Festival in Fayetteville on October 2nd.
Greenwood will also run at Ben Geren Park against Fort Smith Northside on September 11th and at Siloam Springs a week later on the 18th. They will also run at Russellville or possibly Mansfield on the 25th and will host their lone home meet on October 7th. The event is called “The Thrill on the Hill” at Bell Park and is one of the tougher courses to run in the conference. According to Andrews, more than 500 runners have participated in each of the last two years in grades 7-12.
The Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs will conclude their regular season with a meet at Van Buren on October 16th before the conference meet at Vilonia on the 26th. As always, the state meet will be held at Oaklawn in Hot Springs the first week of November. All teams are allowed to compete at the state level.
For those who qualify and want to compete, there are two other meets on the schedule, an all-star event featuring some of the best runners in Arkansas and Oklahoma and a NIKE sponsored event in Texas, both meets in November.
“I just want to expose these kids to what it’s like to run in big meets against top talent,” said the coach. “If they are going to run in college, why not put them in positions to experience that competition level?”