MILLERS CREEK — After a rebuilding year in 2012, the Buckin’ Elks are back on top of the cross country world.
The Elkin boys placed their top five runners on the all-conference team en route to a convincing team title at the Mountain Valley Conference cross country championship Tuesday afternoon at West Wilkes.
Led by senior Brandon Welborn’s third-place finish in 17:27, the Elks bested second-place Ashe County by 28 points (45-73) to bring home the title and cap a perfect run through the league.
“We have worked extremely hard since the summer. This was a goal that we had set all year long,” Head Coach Dan Merritt explained between smiles. “The boys were prepared and ran their guts out today.”
East Wilkes’ Will Jolly blazed past the field to win the individual title, finishing 27 seconds ahead of Ashe’s Andrew Tedder, while setting a new course record in 16:59. Welborn finished less than a second behind Tedder for bronze.
“Brandon ran well today,” Merritt said. “Will Jolly is an outstanding runner, but they’ll meet again. He’s only been running for about a year and a half but has made great strides for us. I’m just extremely proud of him to reach where he’s at.”
Jacob Parker raced to a seventh-place finish in 18:07 to lead a core group of sophomores for the Elks behind Welborn. Said Javier crossed in ninth with a time of 18:21, while Blake Poplin (18:30) and Jonah Christian (18:45) finished in 12th and 14th place, respectively, to give Elkin five all-conference runners — given to the top 15 runners.
“We won the boys in 2011 and last year was a rebuilding year. Now all those freshmen are sophomores with Brandon as the only senior, so all those guys will be back next year,” Merritt explained. “Sometimes you go through a rebuilding year but they have worked hard and responded well. And they just did it today and gave their heart.
“I’m proud that all of our kids ended up with medals today and that our first five made all conference. I couldn’t ask for a better day.”
Eli Brown (17th - 19:21) and Jeremy Pierce (19th - 19:35) finished in the top 20 to garner an honorable mention.
Freshman Kyle Rhodes raced to a fifth-place finish for East Wilkes behind Jolly in a time of 17:38, while Grant Bare crossed in 29th place in 21:14.
Stewart Wilkins was Starmount’s top finisher, coming in 38th place in a time of 22:38.
In the girls’ race, converted track superstar Shakai Ward was the story.
Ward pulled away at the final mile marker to capture the individual championship to remain perfect in conference races this season, while setting a new course record in 21:08.
“Shakai is obviously a great track talent. This year, we’ve tried to transition her to run cross country,” Merritt explained. “She has so much potential and so much talent, she doesn’t even know about it herself. I’m just excited for her that she won. She’s a work in progress and she keeps getting better and better.”
Ward said the conference crown “means the world” to her.
“It means the world to me,” she said between breaths. “It’s just an opportunity to reach my next goal, which is to make all-regionals.
“It was a hard course and I had a lot of competition today, but I’m just happy it’s over,” Ward added. “When I hit the last mile marker and told myself, ‘I got this.’ I had to keep going strong and give my all.”
Teammate Madeline Carter crossed the line in seventh with a time of 22:12 to earn all-conference honors and put Elkin in the top four of the final standings with 80 team points. Ashe County edged the field with 65 team points as the top four were separated by just 15 points.
“We knew the girls race was going to be close and that there were three or four teams that could win. But I’m proud of our girls, they worked hard and gave everything they had,” Merritt said. “Things didn’t go our way, but they’re still champions in my book.”
Courtney Beals finished 18th in a time of 24:53, while Hannah Brown (25:31) and Cameron Beals (26:11) crossed in 24th and 30th, respectively, for the Lady Elks. Kelsey Nicholson (32nd - 26:31) and Whitney Sprinkle (36th - 27:21) rounded out Elkin’s top seven.
Taylor Tharpe paced East Wilkes at the meet, crossing the line fourth in a time of 21:25 as the Cardinals finished third overall with 73 points.
McKenzie Stokes ran to a ninth-place finish in 22:52, while Melia Huggins finished 17th in 24:38 for the Cards.
Freshman Jenny Carranza led Starmount with a 31st-place finish in 26:31 with Janet Zamora crossing in 38th in a time of 27:52 as the Rams finished in seventh.
Both squads now gear up for the 1A Western Regional on Oct. 26 at Ivey M. Redmon Park in Kernersville.
“Regionals are next,” Merritt said. “Our boys are ranked fifth in the state and our girls are ranked 10th. In regionals, the boys are ranked either second or third and our girls are right there on that bubble at third or fourth with the top four teams going to states. We’re in a tough region so we’re going to have to run well, but it’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
“Our first goal was to win conference, getting to the state meet was our second,” he continued. “I’ve never been around a group of kids I am more proud of then them.”
Reach Matthew Gorry at 835-1513 or email@example.com.