It was crunch time for all of the Class A and AA cross country teams in the area Thursday afternoon as the Region meet was held at Chickamauga Dam's challenging 5K course.
With qualification for next Saturday's state meet hanging in the balance, three of the four individual winners were repeat winners from last year.
East Hamilton's Nick McCormick won the Region 3 race for the second year with a winning time of 16 minutes, 54 seconds. Andre Hillsman of Central Magnet from Murfreesboro was victorious in the Region 4 race as the Tigers claimed the team title as well after going 1-2-3.
Janelle Wigal, a junior at CSAS, won her second-straight Region 3 title with a time of 22:58 and the Lady Patriots matched the Central Magnet boys with a 1-2-3 finish of their own and a team title.
Central Magnet's Claudia Smith won her second-straight Region 4 title with a time of 20:51, beating runner-up Mallory Young of Signal Mountain by nine seconds in the second closest race of the day.
"It's hot out here, but I felt pretty good when I started," said McCormick, who is hoping to improve on last year's runner-up finish at Percy Warner Park.
"The hills always kill me, especially on the second time around, but it feels so good to repeat. I was just going for the win, hoping to go under 17 minutes. I don't like this course very much and I just wanted to hurry and be finished," McCormick added.
The East Hamilton senior was third in the Region as a sophomore before finishing 15th in the state, so he'll be shooting for his third straight All-State honor next Saturday.
While McCormick was first, Collegedale Academy's Seth Ruhling was the runner-up in 18:01. Sweetwater's Samuel Hawkins was third in 18:21.
Since Ruhling won't be a participant in the state meet since Saturday is the Sabbath for Adventists, the next two finishers will advance since any individual in the top 10 not on the top three teams also advance.
Hillsman was in a race by himself as he crossed the line in 17:54 to defeat teammate Noah Delk by four seconds. Patrick Cardel made it three straight Tigers with a time of 18:16.
"I had a great run as I just wanted to run comfortable as I get ready for the state meet. This race was a good measuring stick for that. I really don't like this course as it's tough, but I'm hoping to finish in the top three after finishing fifth last year," the slender junior expressed.
Wigal set the pace for her teammates to win in 22:58 while freshman Shelby Keith was second in 23:11 and Maggie Fraser third in 23:19.
East Hamilton's Carli Larson was fourth in 23:40 while Red Bank's Lynn Fults, one of the pre-race favorites, finished fifth in 24:13 after turning her ankle in the first mile.
"That was awesome," Wigal blurted as Keith and Fraser walked through the finish chute with smiles on their faces.
"It was a blast, but I was more excited about our team taking the top three spots than I was about winning again. My time wasn't what I wanted, but it was faster than last year, so I'm happy," Wigal added.
This is the fifth time the Lady Patriots have qualified for the state meet and third straight year. Coach Mark Dragoo was thrilled to see such a strong finish.
"You just hope to go 1-2-3 in a race like this. Our fourth and fifth runners weren't as fast as I'd hoped, but we knew going in that we had a really good chance of winning. The boys have been 10 times and they're a little disappointed they didn't qualify.
"Janelle was consistent today. It's not easy to run up front and repeat as a region champion, but she was motivated enough to do it and I'm proud of her," Dragoo added.
Smith and Young ran side-by-side for the first two miles with Smith taking the lead just past the second mile mark. She put the hammer down on the biggest hill just past that point and the Signal Mountain sophomore just couldn't maintain.
"I wasn't expecting to run my best time today, but I just wanted to win," said Smith, another outstanding sophomore.
"I was trying to save some energy for the end, but I pulled away going up the big hill the second time," Smith added, noting that her winning time last year was 20:40.
Young was fifth in this race last year. She knew that Smith would be hard to beat, but she accepted that fact before the race began and was happy with the results.
"It was a good race as I just tried to hang on. She killed me on the hills. I was shooting for second place today and that's exactly what I got, but my team had an awesome race and I'm really excited about that," she smiled.
Central Magnet's girls won with 45 points while Signal Mountain was second with 58 and Notre Dame third with 64.
CSAS, Polk County and Sequoyah were the top three teams in the Region 3 girls race.
Sweetwater, East Hamilton and Polk are the three boys teams in Region 4 while the Region 3 team qualifiers include Central Magnet, Cannon County and Signal Mountain.
Individual results and team scores will be posted later.
(email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)