Darby Middlebrook showed she was back in great early-season form after some downtime due to injury over the summer.
My first impression of this meet was that the course is much tougher than I expected. Anyone who is familiar with the old two-mile course used by Appalachian State for this meet before three years ago (and also used for ASU camp races) would be surprised by the 3000m course that Watauga uses here. From the relatively deep grass, which was wet for the morning races, to the fairly tough 400m hill, to the gravel and rock dust sections on the back side, this course wears you out more than you would expect. Add in the good-sized curve that happens only 40m from the finish line, and overall this is not the flat racetrack many think of when they hear "State Farm Field." The rain held off for the entire meet, and the races were held mostly under cloudy skies, although the air was definitely humid, causing to mid-70's temperatures to seem much warmer. There were eight races, so let's get started breaking them down:
Twins Madison and Madelyn Hamby (West Wilkes) charged directly to the lead off the gun, trailed closely by Mara Bhalla (Lincoln Charter).
By the time the runners were about 800m into the race, though, it was Bhalla in complete command. The chase pack was led by Lacey Warren (Alexander Central), with Madelyn Hamby and Kaitlyn Stone (West Stokes) on her heels.
Bhalla continued to extend her lead all the way to the finish, clocking a very solid 12:45.26 to win by 48 seconds. Stone prevailed in the battle for second place, while it was Madison Hamby that ran a smooth, even race to take third place.
The early pace was set by Braxton Langston-Chapman (North Davidson), an early sign of the spirited racing we would see from an unheralded Knights squad. Joe Wiswell (Watauga) and Jacob Chipman (East Wilkes) also went right to the front.
Half a mile into the race, the front group had already strung out, and Josh Hall (West Wilkes) had taken over the lead. Langston-Chapman was still holding onto second, while Chipman clung to his spot on the front of the chase group.
A lot can happen on this course while the runners are on the back loop, mostly away from the spectators. Hall was able to maintain his lead despite a strong challenge from Wiswell, and the two came in 1-2. Matthew Hellenbrand (Watauga) and Andrew Lankford (North Stokes) waged one of the best finishing battles of the day, with Hellenbrand holding onto third.
Three athletes took this race out very quickly from the gun. Mason Kepley (High Point Central), showing her track speed, claimed the early lead; she was followed by Sophia Bhalla (Lincoln Charter) and Alexis Elder (North Davidson).
By the time she got to the 800m mark, Kepley was firmly in command of the race and looking very strong. Bhalla was solidly in second place, while Kathleen Mansure (Watauga) was at the front of the main pack.
Somewhere on the back side of the course, Kepley fell, sustaining some small cuts and a twisted ankle (thankfully, it seemed that the injuries were minor). Bhalla seized the opportunity and, spurred on by the breakneck pace with which this race started, she closed out in a sparkling time of 11:47.58 (nearly two minutes faster than last year at this meet). Mansure finished second, her 12;19 perhaps signaling her status as a top-5 runner for the Pioneers. Kepley showed her toughness by finishing fourth after her fall, and she showed enough early in the race for us to know that she is in very good shape.
The early leader was Will Jolly (East Wilkes), and behind him Sam Engelbach (McDowell) led one of the more tightly-bunched starting packs of any of the day's races.
After the initial dust had settled and the runners had found their paces, Justin Kenard (North Stokes) had joined Jolly and Engelback to form a three-man group of leaders. Behind them, the runners were strung out in a long line.
Over the final 1500m of the course, Michael Holland (Watauga), who was 5th at the 800m mark, steadily moved forward until he has all alone at the front. His 10:24 mark would stand up to all but the top few senior boys as the day wore on. Engelbach outlasted the original three leaders to finish second.
There was not a clear leader in the early charge after the gun, but rather a very large pack that would take a while to sort out. It looked like Watauge, Lincoln Charter, and Alexander Central were making an effort to stay in small team groups from the start.
800m into the race, the conservative-starting Watauga girls had moved up to take control of the race. Lynde Wangler had pulled out to a fairly substantial lead, with Celia Jackson at the front of the main group. Hannah McBride (North Stokes) was recovering from being a bit buried on the start, and moving into contention.
Wangler maintained her lead all the way to the finish, although McBride did close up enough to make it interesting for a while. Jackson finished third, followed by a three-girl group of Alexander Central runners that had maintained their mini-pack throughout the race.
You could tell right from the get-go that this would be a two-man battle early, as Brady Smith (McDowell) and John Vollmer (Watauga) went right to the front.
Half a mile in, two more had joined the front group: Ben Sprinkle (Alexander Central) and James Hammonds (North Stokes).
Sprinkle was able to gain the upper hand in the last 1000m, and he brought home a solid win in 10:47.09. Early leader Smith was able to hold on for second over Hammonds.
Continuing a trend of aggressive starts and finished by her teammates, Morgan Benedict (North Davidson) ran to the front of the field after the gun. Darby Middlebrook (Watauga), approaching the race as part of a larger workout, was tracking her.
Middlebrook took control about 400m in, and was all by herself by the 800m mark and looking very comfortable. Benedict remained in second, with the Watauga duo of Madison Harman and Doria Kosmala giving chase.
Middlebrook extended her lead to dominating proportions, picking it up slightly at the end but still clearly cruising in at 11:07.72. Her teammates made it a 1-2-3 sweep, as Harman got to the line in 12:12 and Kosmala in 12:29.
This was another race where the front group was a large pack right from the start, although Jason Barber (West Stokes) had the inside line for the gradual right-hand curve following the start.
Abram Logan (East Wilkes) was the first to the 800m mark, with Barber running almost dead even a few feet beside him. Sean Condon (North Stokes) led the main pack, followed closely by a trio of Watauga runners that had set out at a measured pace as part of their workout approach.
Barber pulled steadily away over the last mile, running a steady race to put up the best time of the day, 10:03.33. Josh Anderson (Watauga), a potential candidate to replace the follicular void left by the graduation of Craig Engels' hair, separated from his teammates late to earn second place.