Week two of the 2011 cross country season brings us a great present: two huge early-season invitationals to provide us with a great feel for the status of state championship contenders. A great range of top teams will be in serious competition at the full 5K distance Saturday, including both public and private powers. This weekend also provides some enticing head-to-head competitions that will provide the first real doses of bragging rights and championship swagger this season.
The Meet: WNC Cross Country Carnival
Tracing its current history back to 2001, this has become the premier cross country invitational in Western North Carolina. Founded and developed by former T. C. Roberson boys' coach Steve Carpenter, the meet was patterned after the popular Eye Opener meet in South Carolina (run successfully by Jack Todd). Over its relatively short history the meet has developed a reputation for great competition, as well as for being well-managed, and it now attracts top teams from Tennessee and South Carolina as well as our own state. The meet has played host to countless eventual state champions; last year alone saw SIX of the thirteen 2010 state champion teams in North Carolina cutting their teeth on the Jackson Park course: Chapel Hill's boys (NCHSAA 3A), Providence Day's boys (NCISAA 3A), Robbinsville's boys (NCHSAA 1A), Asheville Christian's boys (NCISAA 2A), Charlotte Latin's girls (NCISAA 3A), Hendersonville's girls (NCHSAA 1A), plus a few runners-up and other top-5 teams to boot.
The WNC Carnival has a format that allows larger teams to enter 7-runner squads in more than one division. The Championship race is reserved for the top 7 runners from the best (and bravest) teams, while the Invite race pits the second seven from some of the state's best schools against the top 7 from the second tier of teams. Finally, the Open race handles the remaining runners, as many as you want to put out there, which will surely make for a massive flood of runners on the start. This year's incarnation of the WNC Carnival will host a total of 44 teams from 4 states.
WNC Carnival Meet History (via MileSplit database)
The Course: Jackson Park
Not just the location for one big invitational, in the last 10 years Jackson Park has become the center of championship cross country in Western North Carolina. The 3A, 2A, and 1A West regionals have been held there for a decade, and that level of competition cements this course in the upper echelon of NC circuits. One note to everyone who agonizes over course length: yes, Jackson Park is slightly short. In the words of current meet director David Culp (T. C. Roberson), "Steve and I measured the Jackson Park course numerous times and came up with the 3.07 miles distance (both nerdy engineers, we even calibrated the measuring wheels in a lab). [We] could have worked it out to exactly 5K but felt good about the course and just left it as it was."
Deceptively hilly in places, which makes up for the missing 0.03 miles, Jackon Park does produce quick times...but that is largely due to the high level of competition in the races there. The course is built around a 1.3 mile double loop, and as Coach Culp says, "There are 4 hills: Horseshoe Hill, followed immediately by Seizure Hill, then The Wall, and finally Hill Hill (named after Ryan Hill) before descending back down a grassy hill to the start of the loop." Any course that has topographical features named "Seizure Hill" and "The Wall" just has to be awesome.