Even though it wasn't first-place finishes for the Banks County cross country teams in Carrollton, the Leopards still had a great showing to conclude the 2019 season.
Both the boys and girls' teams finished fourth in Class AA in 2019, and Griffin Stephens ended his BC cross country career with a first-place finish in the boys' race.
Stephens (16:44.15) defeated Bleckley County's Garrett Rogers by .06 to win the title. Stephens finished runner-up in 2018, third in 2017 and seventh in 2016.
Stephens said the lead changed quite a few times during the race.
"It was a good bit, because I was back and forth with Garrett," Stephens said. "... I knew that Garrett was going to be behind me, so I had to just push. That first mile, I hit 5:06, and that's exactly what I wanted, because I was going for 5:10 to 5:05. I said, '5:06 is perfect.' That leaves enough room to where if Garrett catches up, he's going to have to gas himself.
"He got up. We got up to the second mile, he passed me. He got a little lead on me, and I kind of recovered on that second mile. I just knew, I said, 'Senior year, no regrets.' And I took off coming up separation slope, and I was like, 'There it is. Here's my opportunity to pass him.' And I got him. It was the best experience of my life."
Stephens said it was the 2 1/2-mile mark when he made the final pass for the win. Once he crossed the finish line, it was nothing but "joy" flowing through his mind.
"I'm super excited," Stephens said. "I've been ranked first for the past few years, and it has always been like that. It has been a crazy race for me to get first or second ... I believe the hard work I put in this season to be the state champion was enough."
Rogers nearly caught Stephens at the finish line. But Stephens remembered during a state track race where Rogers caught him in the final 100 meters to win. Stephens wasn't going to let that happen again.
"I said, 'This one's my turn. This is my turn.' I came through, because this is my senior year and I had to do it," Stephens said.
Head coach Will Foster said Stephens ran a great race to get the win.
"I am super proud of him and all he has accomplished during his tenure in the Banks (County) cross country program," Foster said. "We talk about making decisions in tough moments, and Griffin epitomized that during the race.
"He had been gapped by a couple of seconds with a mile to go. He made the decision not to give in and instead made a move on the second-to-last hill ... I have watched Griffin put in work all year round for the last four years, and it was awesome to be able to see him capitalize on all that work and talent with a state championship victory. He is very deserving of all the accolades he has received."
Boys Finish Fourth
The boys' team finished fourth overall. After winning the Region 8-AA title, the Leopards fell short in a bid for the state title. Region foe Oglethorpe County won the state title, defeating another region foe, Union County, by four points. The Leopards finished 40 points behind Oglethorpe County.
Buck Ledford finished 20th for the team. He finished with a time of 18:30.75. Patrick Angel took 31st in 18:49.74. Nic Cotton finished 37th in 19:00.72, and Bryson Banister finished 56th (19:24.18).
"The boys were in a tough spot going into the race," Foster said. "After running great at region, we had a target on our backs. It is tough to beat teams multiple times in a season. Those top-two teams ran great races on Saturday. I told our guys that you can't control how well other teams run. We can only control our own races and preparations. We prepared well and we raced well. It just so happened that Oglethorpe, Union and Bleckley raced better."
It was the Leopards' fourth-straight podium finish at state.
"I told the guys that it may be a good sign that we were a little disappointed with a fourth-place state championship performance," Foster said. "Shows that a legacy has been built and that we will continue to not be complacent with past success. I am very proud of the boys' team and what we were able to accomplish this season."
Girls Finish Fourth
The girls' team showed its grit at the state meet. The top-five finishers finished between 23rd and 36th.
Destinie Martin paced the team with a time of 23:13.51 and a 23rd-place finish. Anna Parker finished 33rd in 23:51.11. Alli Clark broke the 24-minute mark, finishing 34th in 23:55.04 and Jenna Reeves wasn't far behind in 35th at 23:59.70. Alessandra Olivares was right behind her in 36th in 24:00.36.
"The girls really rebounded from region with a great race on Saturday," Foster said. "Going in, we had discussed how important it would be for our pack to be close and our split to be low. The girls executed that to perfection. A split of 46 seconds is impressive at any meet, and especially in a state championship field. The girls' team race was going to be close, and we knew that we would have to finish close in order to compete for the podium. I was most proud of how tough they were on Saturday. A couple were feeling a bit under the weather going in, but they were able to gut it out and finish with their teammates.
"The girls have shown some great resilience this season. Several haven't run the times they wanted, but they did not let that stop them from showing up, running hard every day and being consistent in their preparations. That is an example of what great athletes do, regardless of level or sport. It was a great race to finish the season on. A podium finish is something that is not that common if you look at the history of the program, so I am extremely proud of this group of ladies (for) accomplishing that and continuing our streak of podium appearances."
Ben Munro contributed to this story.