The best just keep getting better. Or in the words of folks who run cross country, the fast just keep getting faster.
Such was the case at Baylor on a near-perfect Thursday afternoon as several hundred runners gathered for the annual Front Runner Invitational.
Signal Mountain junior Mallory Young and McCallie senior Derek Barnes both turned in outstanding times as they led their teams to victory in the final race of the year involving all teams in the Chattanooga Cross Country League on the same course on the same day.
With Young running a personal best time of 18 minutes, 51 seconds, she led her Lady Eagle teammates to the team title as they finished with three of the top four finishers and 42 total points.
Heritage had Caitlin Craft and Sarah Buckler finishing sixth and seventh to take second among the girls' teams with 62 points while runner-up Grace Carlson set the pace as the Baylor girls were third with 84 points.
The Signal Mountain girls were impressive, but their performance didn't match the dominance put on by Barnes and his Blue Tornado teamates.
Barnes posted a time of 15:52 to beat Bradley's Harold Smith by four seconds. Baylor's Jackson Goodwin was seventh in 16:26, but other than Smith and Goodwin, the Blue Tornado had six runners in the first eight who finished.
Ramsay Ritchie was third in 15:58 while Dylan Carmack was fourth in 16:12, Matthew Jones fifth in 16:18, Tommy Ellis sixth in 16:25 and Reed Oscar eighth in 16:50.
McCallie was first with 19 points while Baylor was a distant second with 80 and Coahulla Creek third with 161.
"That was awesome," said McCallie coach Mike Wood after his defending D-II state champ Blue Tornado turned in a near-perfect performance.
"This is our first race against all of these local teams this year, but they all did a pretty good job as all but one had a great race. We kept our pack together for the first half of the race, but these are our fastest times as a team ever at McCallie," Wood nodded.
"I'm sure these guys will be disappointed when they find out that our 2005 team finished with 17 points," the veteran coach said, knowing that a perfect score of 15 is registered when a team has all five scoring runners at the front of the pack.
"We knew there would be some guys who wanted to take it out fast, but we just tried to maintain our pack mentality," said Barnes after his first-place finish.
"Our main focus was on our team strategy and that was running as a group. There was a lot of good competition out here today and I could hear Harold's footsteps at the end, but somehow I found another gear.
"I've broken 16 minutes in every race this fall, but I'm more happy with how well our team ran. We're still getting better, but we're pointing toward the state meet in two weeks," Barnes added with a smile.
Bradley's Smith has been a dominating force among the guys this fall, but he was more happy about a second-place finish than any of the other wins.
"It's about time. I've been waiting for a time like this for a long time as it's been more than two years since I got a PR," he said, noting that Thursday's time of 15:56 was a personal best by some nine seconds.
"I started off at a conservative pace and stayed with the McCallie guys. I picked them off one at a time, but just couldn't catch Derek. I'm really happy with my time today," Smith said.
Signal Mountain coach Kim Brown has almost gotten used to watching her girls perform well, but she was maybe a little more upbeat over the times that her guys posted on a day where the temperatures were in the mid 60s, the humidity was all but non-existent and there were even a few clouds to shade the sun.
"It seems like the girls always do good and everybody's always talking about them, but my guys have really come together. Across the board, we all got PRs, but I'm really proud of Robert Storr. He's one of my seniors who has been wanting to break 18 minutes all year. Today he had a 17:40," the coach beamed, knowing that he was the leader of the team with a 29th-place finish.
"I can't wait until the state meet. Our times are dropping like crazy as we're peaking at the right time, but what can I say about Mallory Young. She's so self-motivated as she knows exactly what to do, but I'm really happy for her getting under 19 minutes for the second time on this course," Brown concluded.
Young was in control from the start as she passed the first mile mark in 5:50 and had a 25-second lead as the second lap began. Her margin of victory over Baylor's Carlson was a whopping 40 seconds.
Signal Mountain teammates Madison Drennan and Becca Umbarger were third and fourth with times of 19:36 and 19:40, respectively, while Home School's Kathryn Vradenburgh, a promising eighth-grader, was fifth in 19:41.
"That was a PR by nine seconds, but what a perfect day to be racing," said Young as she watched the other runners finish.
"It was fun and a great day to be running. I tried to pick up my pace on the second lap, but it's hard when you're running all by yourself. I think all of my teammates got PRs and I'm really happy about that," Young said after finishing third in this race last year.
Carlson spent the first part of the season getting over a bum toe, but she's come on strong at the end. She too was really happy over her best time of the season.
"It was perfect weather and we had some really good competition out here today," the soft-spoken red-headed sophomore began.
"I moved into second place on the back side of the second loop, but I'm really surprised at how good I felt today. Normally I'm about dead at the start of the third mile, but I was feeling great today. I'm ecstatic with the results," she nodded.
Drennan is the only senior in that first group and she too was smiling from ear to ear after her best time ever.
"I'm very happy as I ran a lot better than I was expecting," she said after posting her best time by some 45 seconds.
"I started out behind a bunch of folks in the first half and was sort of worried, but I'm a senior this year and I really needed to do good in this race. We've been doing some incredible speedwork and it's paying off. I think I passed at least three or four girls in that final half-mile as I felt great," Drennan said.
While Thursday's race was the last meet where all teams race on the same day on the same course, the Region 3-A/AA teams will compete at Woodland Park on Tuesday with Region 4-A/AA and 3-AAA going to Dayton and Fort Bluff for their races next Thursday.
McCALLIE TEAMMATES Athey Crump and George Arrowsmith finished with times of 17:48 and 17:49 as the Blue Tornado claimed the top 10 spots for a perfect score of 15 in the JV race.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)