by Becky Kimbrell-Norris
WAKE FOREST — The return of a talented core of experienced runners has the Franklin Academy cross country team looking forward to 2013.
“This year’s team has got coach Dwayne Reece and I really excited,” said Patriot head coach Beth Martin.
“First of all, we have a good mixture of experience and raw, untested talent than we’ve ever had before, and the team seems to be responding well to the challenge of more intense intra-squad competition,” she said.
Last season was a sensational one for the Patriots
The girls raced to first place in the 1A mideast regional and runner Hannah Zenker, a freshman last year, was second overall in the girls 1A cross country state championship race.
Three of the top five runners on the girl’s side are back this season.
“The girls seem poised to be even stronger this year, especially with the infusion of some strong talent coming up from the middle school and the addition of some new upperclassmen,” Martin said.
“I expect the gap between the first and fifth runner to be much tighter this year — a weak point for us in the past that hurt us in the state competition,” she added.
The top three runners are back on the boys’ side.
Martin said last year was a turning point for the boys’ program as they qualified for the state meet for the first time.
“It seems to have lit a fire under them to work even harder so they can make the return trip this season,” Martin said. “I look to see some breakout performances from runners who were just starting to put it all together toward the end of last season.”
“The boys are excited to begin competition,” Martin added.
Junior Justin Martin was the fastest runner on the boys’ team last season with a best time of 17:54.
“He is intent on dropping more time this year and has the energy, strength and determination to do it,” Martin said.
Evan Uhlig, a senior, shaved 1:44 off his time between the conference meet and the state meet, finishing in 18:56.
“With that added confidence, I expect him to carve off more time and inspire his teammates to do the same,” Martin said.
Martin added that Martin Pertz, a junior, is on the verge of having a breakout season. “I fully expect his last year’s time of 19:46 to be cut early on as he seems to have improved over the summer.”
For the girls, Zenker will be the Patriots top contender. She posted her best time, 19:08, this past November. Martin said she is in good position to run under 19 minutes early in the season.
Senior Aly Chura is also running again along with Brittany Henderson, a sophomore.
“Aly is a tough and talented athlete who struggled with a painful knee last season but still managed to post strong times,” Martin said.
“Brittany brought her time down to 22:44 last season and possesses the work ethic and athleticism it will take to cut even more time this season,” Martin added.
The Patriots team will have 22 girls and 30 boys this season, including 18 freshmen.
“Even with the large number of freshmen, the team doesn’t feel as young as it did last year,” Martin said. “One of the reasons may be is that we have a very balanced representation of experienced runners with good leadership skill and a desire to bond as a team.”
The new runners that Martin said will make a significant contribution include freshman Ally Christopher, Olivia Shaut, a junior, and Kianna Cook another freshman.
She is also looking forward to first-timers Nick Mazzoleni, a senior, junior T.T. Joyner and Jacob Joyner and Ethan Solero, both freshmen.
Martin said the girls are already considered the dominant team in the new North Central Athletic Conference.
“In order to place higher in the state competition, they’ll have to shrink the gap between the first and fifth runner and bring the sixth and seventh runner closer to the pack,” she said.
With added depth in the boys’ team this season, Martin expects them to improve immediately.
“Their challenge will be in how they handle the strong teams in our conference,” Martin said, “and they need to get to the hard work of improving their times.”
“We have some varsity runners new to cross country who will need to learn how to race. But the motivation and desire is there for sure,” she added.