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THE PLAINS –– Galax won its first state cross country championship after chasing it for 25 years. Leading the way for the Maroon Tide was a kid who is now 1-for-1 as an individual.
Taking up cross country this fall mostly as a means to stay in shape for basketball, rookie runner Cliff Conley claimed the individual Group 1A state championship while gutsy performances by several Tide runners boosted Galax to the team title by a mere two points over Radford at the Great Meadows cross country course near Manassas.
The winning margin was as narrow as they come. And waiting for the official outcome was almost excruciating.
A runner’s finishing position translates into an equal number of points for his team – for example, Conley contributed a ‘1’ to Galax’s team score – and the first five of a team’s seven runners count toward the team score. Conley bested Radford’s Sam Van Noy by five spots while Dustin Mathews and Chandler Quesenberry maintained Galax’s advantage, each finishing one spot behind a Radford runner.
The team title came down to the Nos. 4 and 5 runners for Galax, Radford and Altavista. Daniel Hix and Dominic DiGiacomo pulled through for the Tide.
A knifing side stitch nearly got the best of Hix with about 1,000 meters to go as he trailed a pack that included two runners from each of the other two contending teams.
“When he went by me with about 600 to go, there were six guys within 20 yards of him,” Quesenberry said. “I just told him if you’ve got anything left you’ve got to go right now.”
Just before he went out of his coach’s sight, Hix hit the gas.
“I could see him lift his head and just weave his way through them in just an all-out kick,” Quesenberry said of Hix, who willed himself to a 22nd-place finish. “He got all six guys, which was the difference-maker.”
That left DiGiacomo, whose top priority this fall was golf until that season ended.
“He improved quicker than anybody else because he hadn’t been there every day,” Quesenberry said. “With 200 meters to go he had a Radford guy on one shoulder and a kid from Lancaster on the other shoulder. If either one of those kids goes by him, we don’t win.”
DiGiacomo would surge out to a small lead, then resume a normal pace as the other two reeled him in. His final 100 meters was an all-out sprint to a 30th-place finish, 20 meters ahead of the other two.
“It just comes down to kids having heart,” his coach said.
The heart was there, but the nerves were about shot by the time the team winner was announced. The electronic scoring system, which usually determines a team champion within moments of the final runner’s finish, gave up the ghost during the race, leaving the scoring to be tabulated via good old-fashioned mathematics.
“It was like we had stepped back in time six or seven years,” Quesenberry said.
The team champion was still a mystery as the places were called out, starting with fifth. After Altavista was announced as the third-place team, the invitation for Radford to accept the runner-up’s trophy set off a maroon and white celebration.
“We just went berserk,” said Conley.
Quesenberry was there in the program’s infancy, as was a runner named Yerrick Stoneman. Monday, Stoneman was readying his GHS volleyball team for Friday’s state semifinal match.
“We had to go to the school board and petition to have a team,” he said. “We were lucky to have a coach in Tony…This has been a long time coming for him. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s about 180- or 200,000 miles he’s run with the kids in the last 25 years. We don’t put that much on a car, and he’s put that much on his shoes with these kids.”
The mileage has been considerably less for Conley, a junior transfer from Floyd County and an erstwhile football player. He had been around the sport – his brother Cole was an all-Region C runner for Floyd – but transferring to Galax left him behind as far as football was concerned.
“Dustin and Chandler said, ‘Hey, why don’t you just run cross country with us?’ ” he said. “I thought, why not? I’m not doing anything else and it’s going to keep me in shape. I guess it worked out.”
Just hoping to make the top seven, Conley would run with his teammates in early practices and meets, but had an extra gear down the stretch. Quesenberry urged him to try a faster pace at the start, especially at the Wendy’s Invitational in Charlotte. Conley responded with a school-record time. He has bested the previous record twice more since, setting the new standard of 16:01. His 16:05 Saturday was 10 seconds faster than the winning time of Radford’s Walker Mogen in last year’s state meet.
Foot pain caused Conley to drop out of Friday’s practice run.
“I couldn’t take it any more,” he said. “That night I just started praying, just said, ‘Lord help me out a little bit. I don’t really want this happening right now.’ I couldn’t feel it during the meet, but as soon as I crossed that finish line I could feel it hurting.”
A blistering early pace saw Conley cover the first mile in less than five minutes.
“I knew I had to go out hard,” he said. “If I want to beat the Matthew Farmers and the Sean Farneys, I have to get out and stay in front because there’s no way you’re going to catch them if they get in front of you.”
Farmer, of Rural Retreat, placed second 11 seconds behind Conley and seven seconds ahead of Altavista’s Farney.
“We went out way too fast and I’m sure they were feeling it as much as I was,” he said. “I guess it worked out but my goodness, I was about dead.”
Saturday’s team title bested by one place the school’s previous top performance, a state runner-up finish by that inaugural team.
“They were winning all these meets this year, and I kept telling them that they were still just the second-best team we’ve had,” said Stoneman. “Once they won I texted Dustin and Cliff, and told them I’m proud to say I was on the second-best team here.”
Group 1A championships
Great Meadows course, The Plains
Boys’ team results
1. Galax (Gx) 77; 2. Radford (R) 79; 3. Altavista (Al) 97; 4. Mathews (M) 120; 5. Auburn (Au) 121; 6. Washington & Lee (WL) 165; 7. Parry McCluer (PM) 171; 8. Rappahannock (RP) 181; 9. Lancaster (L) 216; 10. Rural Retreat (RR) 218; 11. Bland County (BC) 229; 12. Eastside (E) 354.
Boys’ individual top 15
1. Cliff Conley (Gx)16:05
2. Matthew Farmer (RR)16:16
3. Sean Farney (Al)16:23
4. George Ellis (Middlesex)16:34
5. Jared Downing (Au)16:44
6. Sam Armstrong (PM)16:46
7. Sam Van Noy (R)16:52
8. Gavin Jenkins (Rapp. Co.)16:57
9. Justin Adams (M)17:01
10. Trevor Dominy (Au)17:01
11. Dylan Allen (Altavista)17:06
12. Adam Johnston (R)17:13
13. Dustin Matthews (Gx)17:19
14. Zach Otey (BC)17:20
15. Jack Dryden (PM)17:21
17. Chandler Quesenberry (Gx)17:26
22. Daniel Hix (Gx)17:34
30. Dominic DiGiacomo (Gx)17:53
64. Matthew Horton (Gx)19:13
85. Edgar Guzman (Gx)20:15