CARROLLTON — Commerce cross country coach Mark Hale — presiding over his final state meet — imparted his runners with some last-minute wisdom before running their races in Carrollton.
“You want to enjoy today," Hale said, "but you also want to look back on it with good memories."
The Tigers can check both those boxes.
Powered by Brandon Martin’s second-straight individual state title, the Commerce boys outpaced new challenger Armuchee for the Class A-Public state championship Saturday (Nov. 7).
Hale, who coached the Commerce runners for 23 years, leaves the program having overseen two consecutive state championship campaigns, both delivered in dominating fashion.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Hale said. “Many of them have been running extra miles. They get up, some of them, before school and they run, and then we have practice. They just fully committed, and it paid off today.”
Armuchee dropped down to Class A-Public and presented a challenge to Commerce’s bid for a second-straight crown, but the Tigers cruised to a 32-point win over the Indians to earn the coveted repeat.
“The boys, they showed up today,” Hale said. “We were concerned about Armuchee. But we felt like if we ran well, we were the better team, and we ran well and went out on top again, which is just awesome.”
Senior runner J.J. Morris, who placed 10th (18:41) in Saturday’s meet, said Armuchee presented a bigger scare than the team felt in last year’s meet “because Armuchee was new.”
“With them always being a dominant school in double-A, them dropping down, dropping phenomenal times all throughout the year, we were definitely thinking it was going to be a lot closer than 30-plus points,” Morris said.
Morris credited the improvement in the bottom of the lineup to help make up for the loss of one of the school’s top runners from last year, Dermarco Hernandez, who graduated.
“Even though we lost Demarco, the team definitely picked it up, especially with the improvement of our seven through three (runners) this year,” Morris said. “Josh (Zelaya) really picked it up at the end of the year. Peyton McClure, Cayden Lord, Kade Morgan and Dominic Ricci really had phenomenal seasons. I feel like that played a really big factor.”
And the team’s best runner was as good as ever.
Martin, Class A-Public’s most dominant runner the past two years, finished his career on top with Saturday's performance. Running 12 seconds faster than he did in last year’s win, Martin won this meet by a 36-second margin on a wet course.
“He’s been the best Class A-Public runner the past two years, and he showed it again,” Hale said. “His time maybe could have been a little bit faster without the mud, but I’m just so proud of him just leaving the field. There wasn’t anybody close. What a way to go out for him.”
Martin finished with a time of 16:50.07, considerably ahead of second-place finisher Leo Lopez of Greene County (17:26). Martin was able to avenge a 2018 state-meet loss to Lopez with the victory.
“It feels good to recreate what I did the first year,” Martin said. “And it honestly feels better this year individually than the year prior because I had the competitor (Lopez), sophomore year, that beat me, I had him this time.”
Commerce’s girls team, too, took Hale’s pre-race advice to heart and made the final meet a memorable one. Led by Paden Bell (fourth, 22:10.95), Commerce placed third by a two-point margin, earning a podium finish after a state runner-up performance last year. Armuchee and ACE Charter finished first and second, respectively.
“Our goal was to finish third or fourth and get a podium (finish),” Hale said. “And we weren’t assured of that … I am so proud that we came in third and squeaked it by two points. Somewhere out on that course, when one of our runners passed one or two people, that made the difference.”
Individually, Bell earned another high finish after taking runner-up honors last year.
“I thought fourth was good for her today,” Hale said. “Those Armuchee girls just took off. She ran a good race. I’m proud of her.”
The boys’ and girls’ collective efforts all made for quite the sendoff for Hale.
“It means that much more to let coach Hale go out with a bang senior year,” Morris said.
And true to Hale’s pre-race words, it was a performance in which Commerce's runners could take pride — for years to come.
“What we’ve accomplished today, we will look back on with good memories,” Hale said.
Martin leaves competitors in his wake for second title
Much like his races during the regular season, Martin’s run to a second-straight Class A-Public title wasn’t close.
Even on a wet, muddy course, Martin ran 12 seconds faster than last year’s state-winning time.
Martin went out fast, covering the first 400 meters in 61 seconds — a 4:04 mile pace — and 2:11 after 800 meters.
“And so I just dialed it back down so that way I wouldn’t just immediately die,” Martin said.
Still, he finished in first with plenty of time to spare.
Martin said he wants to help build a legacy for Commerce’s cross country program. With two titles won, he’ll leave is own legacy.
“To be able to do what I’m doing, it just feels so great,” he said. “Going out and working as hard as I am, it just makes the moment all more real.”
Martin plans to run in the Meet of Champions and is considering his options for running in college. Emmanuel College has shown interest, according to Martin.
Hale praises buy-in from runners
The Commerce cross country program has seen a surge in recent years, and Hale gives all credit to his runners, who have “committed to running.”
That wasn’t always the case in years’ past.
“There was a time during practice, I would have to walk around and make sure they were doing their workout,” he said. “They would try to hide or cut corners. And now, I almost have to watch that they don’t do too much. That they don’t do too much running in the morning or on the weekend.
“It’s been the players who have just committed to preparing to be good, and they prepare. The culture has changed. Now, I hope it just passes down year after year after year to the next group.”
Last time around
Though he was coaching his last state meet, the day felt very much normal for Hale, who is retiring from teaching at year’s end.
“It did feel like normal,” Hale said. “I kept telling myself, ‘This is your last one. Enjoy it.’ But once you get out here, and it’s the seniors’ last one.”
Hale said the reality will hit later.
“I’m sure it will sink in later that there’s not another Commerce race I’m going to coach,” Hale said, “but what a way to go out.”
Hale, who played baseball and basketball in high school but never ran competitively, said he grew to love the sport and “the kind of person it attracts.”
“It’s a tough event,” Hale said.
Hale now leaves big shoes to fill for the next coach with two state championship trophies in the trophy case.
“Just have fun with it," Hale said of the job. "They’ll do just fine."
‘Like a father figure’
Hale meant more to his athletes than just serving as a running instructor, according to Morris.
“Coach Hale is like a mentor,” he said. “I guess you could say he’s like a father figure to some people.”
Specifically, Morris said Hale is someone a runner can talk to about anything, not just cross country.
“He’s very understanding,” he said. “He’s one of those coaches where, if you’re with him alone or with one or two other athletes, you’re not really going to be talking about cross country the whole time. He talks to you more about life and college and stuff like that.
“He wants to get to know his athletes, more than it is to just talk and talk and talk about cross country.”
Top 5 runners at state
Brandon Martin, first, 16:50.07
J.J. Morris, 10th, 18:51.43
Josh Zelaya, 16th, 19:08.91
Kade Morgan, 19th, 19:14.90
Cayden Lord, 23rd, 19:39.71
Paden Bell, fourth, 22:10.95
Ermay Vazquez, 11th, 23:57.59
Carson Hawkins, 41st, 26:22.87
Angel Hart, 43rd, 26:29.09
Hannah English, 46th, 26:59.07