Head Coach Jim Andrews and his Lady Bulldogs cross country team are state champions again, winning their second straight 5A title last week and their third championship in five years dating back to 2019. The GHS girls and boys competed in the 5A state meet on Thursday, November 2nd, at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. The Lady Bulldogs finished first with a meet-low total of 65 points, just ahead of second place Russellville with 74 points, while the GHS boys finished 10th overall. Greenwood and Russellville were the only girls’ squads to finish under 100 points among 19 teams. Lake Hamilton was third with 119 points.
After winning it all in 2019 and again in 2022, Coach Andrews and assistant coach Becky Ames knew they had a good chance to repeat as state champions with all their top female runners returning in 2023. Even better, the Lady Bulldogs are losing only two of their top nine runners to graduation next spring and one of their top five, so the future continues to look very bright for the Lady Bulldogs. Andrews has been the GHS head coach for 12 seasons.
The Greenwood varsity boys also return all their top runners, so their potential remains to be unlocked and developed as they gain experience. Overall, the GHS program had around 80 runners this season including both junior high and varsity teams, and Coach Andrews encourages any student who may be interested in cross country to consider joining his program at whatever grade level they may be. According to the coach, long distance running has more to do with mental toughness than overall physical ability, both of which can be improved upon through consistent hard work and the proper training.
The 2023 campaign got off to a rocky start for Greenwood when the season’s first meet, a two-mile event at the University of the Ozarks, was cancelled on September 1st, pushing their opening meet back two weeks to the 16th at Siloam Springs. Still, GHS runners performed well at the Panther Invitational. Greenwood’s ladies placed second out of 13 teams and the GHS boys ran seventh out of 21 teams.
“It was a good meet for us,” said Andrews. “At that time, I thought we were pretty good. I felt pretty good about both the girls and boys. Most of the guys ran good times and the girls did as well. We found out later that the course may have been a bit short, which seemed to be a factor in a lot of meets this year.” But with only one meet under their belt, both Greenwood teams were still trying to prove themselves.
“That [cancellation] kind of put us behind where we wanted to be,” said Andrews, who had purposely scheduled fewer meets in 2023 than in previous years, hoping to keep his runners stronger and fresher for the postseason. But extremely hot weather in early September caused a problem for some meets, such as the prestigious Chile Pepper Festival in Fayetteville on September 30th.
After finishing well at Siloam Springs, Greenwood’s runners were primed and ready for another good showing at Fayetteville, when just before the girls’ race began the meet was unexpectedly shortened from 5K (3.1 miles) to two miles due to the heat. That sudden decision was made without consulting the coaches, according to Andrews, and threw all the runners off their game, so to speak.
Despite the change in distance, the Lady Bulldogs placed third out of 54 teams and the GHS boys were 13th out of 78 teams. “The kids prepared for one thing, and the change kind of threw them for a loop,” explained the coach. “That’s not the way we train. We train for the 5K not the two-mile. That hurt us. There was uncertainty going into the back half of our season.”
But the Greenwood Invitational on October 5th proved to be a turning point for both GHS teams, with the Lady Bulldogs finishing first and the Bulldogs coming in second on a tough course at Bell Park. As it turned out, the home field advantage proved to be just what the doctor ordered, especially for the Lady Bulldogs.
“We had great weather for the meet,” recalled Andrews, “and our girls beat Fort Smith Southside, which was big for us. We wanted to win our [home] meet for sure. [Our girls] ran really well as a team on a hard course. We were hoping to perform at a high level, and we did, so that was a positive thing.” Next, Greenwood traveled to Hot Springs to take part in the Lake Hamilton Invitational held at Oaklawn Park, the same venue as the state meet.
The Bulldogs placed 11th in a field of 25 teams, but the GHS ladies placed third overall behind Class 6A Bentonville and Class 5A Mount St. Mary Academy. More importantly, Greenwood finished ahead of fourth place Russellville, one of their chief competitors in the 5A West conference and on the state level.
Two weeks later, on the 26th, with their confidence bolstered, the Lady Bulldogs entered the 5A West conference meet at Siloam Springs as the favorites to win the league title, and the GHS girls didn’t disappoint, winning first place with a meet low 33 points, a full 20 points ahead of Russellville (53). Mountain Home was third (66 points), Van Buren was fourth (91), and Siloam Springs was fifth (102). “We knew if we could win the conference meet we would set ourselves up to do what we needed to do the rest of the season,” said Andrews, “and our girls won it pretty handily.”
The Lady Bulldogs had four runners finish among the top ten – Carole Werner, Paige Andrews, Julia Witherington, and Piper Ames, with Camryn Coston finishing 14th to round out the team scoring. The GHS boys placed fifth overall out of six teams with 128 points with David Coggin placing 17th as the team’s best performer.
Then came the 5A state meet a week later on the second day of November, and thankfully the course was blessed with good weather. Nine runners were allowed to compete for each team, both girls and boys, with the top five finishers counting toward the team score, with the lowest score winning, as in golf. Yet despite being picked fourth by the MileSplit track website, the Lady Bulldogs had four top 20 finishers to win the girls division and their second consecutive state championship.
“After the first mile we were not going to be the team to win it,” admitted the GHS coach. “But after two miles I felt a lot better. There were a lot of nerves going into that meet. But all of them executed the plan and the bottom half of our lineup had to run better than in the past, and we did that. These girls just do what needs to be done on the day of [the meet].”
The Bulldogs’ top runner was David Coggin in 24th place as the GHS boys finished 10th overall out of 25 teams. Coggin completed the course in 17:15:32, followed by Ridik Lawless (18:03.74) in 53rd place, Rhett Williams (18:05.28) in 55th place, Andrew Rye (18:35.31) in 81st place, and Isaac Trice (18:37.24) in 82nd place to round out the top five. Braylon Neece, Westin Rushing, William Rupert, and Ashton Neece also ran for the Bulldogs, but did not figure in the team scoring.
“I’m not taking anything away from our guys,” said Andrews. “It’s hard being in the shadow of that – the way the girls have performed and won. But the levels of competition are just so different between girls and guys athletics in our classification. Our guys are good, and I love the guys we have. I wouldn’t coach anybody else. These are great guys and great teammates. They work hard and run hard together. They all ran better races in the last meet than they had all season, and that just shows their hearts. They still went out and competed, and it’s still a team we’re building on and trying to make better.”
But it was the Lady Bulldogs who shined the brightest, winning their third state title in five years, as always led by junior Carole Werner, who finished third overall at Oaklawn Park with a time of 19:52.88. Julia Witherington was ninth with a time of 20:26.84, Piper Ames was 14th (21:00.74), Paige Andrews was 19th (21:12.41), and Camryn Coston was 22nd (21:21.02). Sarah Embrey (60th place), Kiera Johnson (62nd), Amelia Morgan (64th), and Elizabeth Moy (85th) also competed for the GHS girls.
“Carole has been there all season for us,” said the coach of Werner. “She’s a great runner. She works hard and does what she has to do to be at the top.” Of Witherington Andrews said, “She’s had a great season. She is really starting to explode and become something great. She’s still got a lot in her, I know.” Regarding Piper Ames the coach said, “She still has a ton of potential. I think next year she will really blossom by just pushing a little bit more. She finally got a good rhythm at the end of the season. She just relaxed and it really showed in that last race. She really stepped up her game for the team. Cameron has so much fight in her,” said the coach of Coston. “I knew Cameron’s race was going to be really important for us, and that last mile or two I kept seeing her pass other girls and getting herself closer to where she needed to be. She had a great race and helped her team win that meet.”
All four of Greenwood’s top female runners – Werner, Witherington, Ames, and Coston – will return in 2024 with their sights set on a third consecutive state title. A wealth of up-and-coming runners forms a substantial pool of candidates to fill the spot vacated by senior Paige Andrews, and there could be some surprises along the way as younger runners continue to develop. Coach Andrews also has a couple girls with prior experience returning to the program who were ineligible this season due to AAA regulations, plus a talented ninth grade class. The coach feels his Lady Bulldogs have clearly established themselves as one of the state’s elite programs.
“We’ve won three of the last five state championships now, and the other two were a runner-up and a third place,” said Andrews. “After we won our first [title], with the girls we had and knowing what we had coming up from the lower grades, I thought there was going to be a run started. Now they are fighting for a championship every year like our football, volleyball, [and girls basketball teams]. It says a lot about Greenwood and the kind of kids we have here. I’m not bragging about what I do, but what this team does and how they perform. I just show up and lead kids around and teach them how to run. We set the tone for what we want, and the kids keep coming back.”