For the last two years the team battle heading into the NCHSAA 2A State Championships has been down to North Lincoln and First Flight. Both years, North Lincoln has brought home the team title over First Flight 58-69 in 2017 and 36-74 in 2018.
The two teams have raced twice this year, at the adidas XC Challenge and NCRunners Elite Invitational. Both races First Flight's was able to edge their 2A rival, but North Lincoln being very close behind.
As expected, both teams dominated their regional meet. In the regional team scoring both schools came out tied with points amongst their 2A competition at 53. First Flight averaged 16:11 and North Lincoln 16:18. First Flight would be faster up front, but North Lincoln would be better from their 4th and 5th runners.
What can we expect on Saturday? The best battle between these two schools yet. It starts from the front where defending champion Zach Hughes (First Flight) and runner-up Jason Thomson (North Lincoln) who had half a second in between them last year. The point difference between there two up front could be what ends up mattering.
Behind them, First Flight's Joseph Davidson and Tyler Sylvia should well within contention for all-state finishes of their own. The two rank 5th and 7th respectively with their 15:51 and 15:56 seasons best coming in. They'll hope to fend off the front of North Lincoln's pack of Khari Johnson and Miles Phillips. Johnson and Phillips have run 16:04 and 16:22 so far this year.
Then the matchup between the two schools are as tight as it could be with First Flight's Warner Campbell and Max Bowlin holding 16:16 and 16:33 PRs and North Lincoln's Jacob Scott and Alex Wulfhurst 16:22 and 16:32 PRs.
It's possible that we can see the 10 athletes in these two schools top 5 all finish within the top 20. We should have a handful of these runners battling down the homestretch with every point mattering through the line.
What would this win mean for First Flight? They would become the first NCHSAA 2A school from the East Region to ever with the team title. A group of guys that have changed the culture and expectations of how good a program with less than 20 runners on the team can be would be rewarded. For North Lincoln, a win would mean they've came out on top of what has been the toughest ever 2A titles to win three straight years. They'd perform at their absolute best on the day that mattered most three years in a row.
The battle behind First Flight and North Lincoln will feature 5 teams hoping to finish third. Croatan has had a program with a lot of track success in recent year, and that's now translated to the distance side. They have a young team with three sophomores, a junior and a freshman in their top 5. Atkins is led by two likely all-state finishers in Ben Armentrout and Walt Sellers. In 2018 the Camels sent their first ever team to the NCHSAA State Championships. This year they'll be one of the top 2A teams.
Carrboro, Lake Norman Charter and NCSSM have been amongst the states strongest 2A programs over the last decade each having won a boys state title over the last 9 years. They'll be in a what should be a tight five way battle for third.
Though a rematch from Zach Hughes and Jason Thomson is expected for the 2A title they should have at least two other athletes with them eyeing a title of there own. Hughes is the defending champion, but has lost to Thomson in their two races this season by a few seconds each time. They hold seasons best of 15:19 and 15:24 respectively.
Ben Armentrout (Atkins) hasn't race the two this year, but has as good of a chance to win as they do. Armentrout has run 15:36 this fall and has proven himself with a win at Friday Night Lights and with top 5 finishes at Hare & Hounds and Wendy's. He was 4th a year ago and will look to join his dad, Brant Armentrout, as NCHSAA Cross Country State Champions. Brant won for Mount Tabor in 1989 setting an course record at the time.
Daniel Hopkins (Lincolnton) has come on strong over the second half of the season. He beat Thomson at the South Fork Conference meet and took 2nd to him at the regional meet finishing 8 seconds back. He's run 15:51 this season. Sophomore Elliott Kleckner (Croatan) will also look to prove himself on the big stage. He's likely to be the favorite the next two years in 2A and is coming off a 4th place finish at the 2A East Regional. Junior Chris Upton (R-S Central) has had a strong season running 15:59 and should improve on his 9th place finish from a year ago.