A Grand Reopening: Spectacular Performances at "The Opener - 2023"
Choctaw Trails lit up with exhilarating energy during The Opener - 2023, marking its official comeback. The ambiance was electric; you could feel the pulsating anticipation from eager spectators ready for the action. Despite the sultry weather conditions, the competitors brought forth one of Mississippi's fastest-ever season openers, setting the tone for an exciting 2023 Watson High School Cross Country Classic.
One of the standout performances came from Ocean Springs' Addison Rainey.
The reigning MHSAA 6A Cross Country Champion and 2022 Mississippi Girls Gatorade Player of the Year in Cross Country, Rainey was returning after a hiatus due to injuries. However, any rustiness was nowhere to be seen as she delivered a fiery performance, finishing third overall with a time of 19:23.2 - her fastest season debut ever. Rainey's audacious opening of under 2:40 for the first 800m initially caught everyone off guard. Yet, St. Joseph Academy's Grace Rennhoff and Simpson's Layla Warren, among others from the chase pack, eventually bridged the gap, leading to an intriguing contest.
St. Joseph's Academy flexed their collective might, echoing their dominant 2022 Watson team title performance. With three of their athletes in the top four and four in the top nine, they racked up an impressive 94-point victory. Ruston followed suit in the second spot, but it was East Rankin Academy that emerged as the top Mississippi contender. They maintained their unbeaten streak in state competitions, outperforming formidable programs across the state like Columbia Academy, Simpson Academy, Pearl High School, and Clinton High School. A significant highlight for East Rankin was the impressive performance of sixth-grader Jewel Baker, who not only ran varsity but finished an impressive 23rd overall. East Rankin's depth and ever-shifting scoring positions, particularly in the third, fourth, and fifth spots, have set the stage for a nail-biting MAIS 5A Girls' contest.
In the Varsity Boys 5K, the center stage was set for a grand showdown. Mississippi's top-ranked boys' team, Pearl High School, made their much-anticipated debut for 2023. The individual race was set to be just as exhilarating, but as with any competition, unexpected twists changed the course of the game.
Setting a blazing pace, Ruston's Thomas Rogers stormed through with a 4:53 opening mile. Known for his fearless negative splits, William Fugate wasn't far behind. By the 2K mark, sensing an opportunity, Fugate took the lead. A fascinating chase ensued, with the two teams, Pearl and Ruston, battling fiercely for dominance. The halfway mark hinted at a lead for Pearl, but as the race progressed, Ruston's athletes seemed to be taking over the mantle.
The climax of the race was intense. Fugate, in a bid to maintain his unbeaten streak, was up against Ruston's Taylor Roller. The stakes were high, and just as victory seemed within reach, tragedy struck. Overwhelmed by the intense heat, Fugate suffered a fall. But showcasing an incredible spirit, he rose and managed to secure a spot in the top 10. The event was a testament to his unparalleled determination and grit.
In the end, Ruston's Roller clinched the gold with a record time of 15:57.4. Pearl's Farren Oberto trailed closely, marking the second spot with an impressive 16:03. Ruston's athletes demonstrated remarkable prowess with three of them securing spots in the top four. Despite this, Pearl High School showcased their depth, with all of their varsity athletes placing in the top 14, ultimately winning the team title over Ruston by a narrow 9 points.
When interviewed, Roller acknowledged the fierce competition, praising the hard-fought battle and hinting at Ruston's aspirations to challenge the Pearl Pirates in the upcoming Watson meet.
Additionally at The Opener, West Lincoln's Hayden Skates and Benton's Claire Allen won the 4,000-meter races, with Allen setting a new 4K course record (for the new Choctaw Trails). Additionally, Ocean Springs' Bella Graves and Madison Central's David Lee executed fantastic races to win the middle school 3,000-meter races.
TCPS Twilight Highlights: Weiss and Burge Reign Supreme
The 2023 TCPS Twilight meet held on Thursday, August 31 witnessed the continuation of Hernando's Graham Weiss and Kaitlyn Burge's stellar cross country performances. Their impressive streak in North Mississippi is undeniable, with both going undefeated in three consecutive races. Their dominance has become a significant talking point in the Mississippi running circuit.
Burge particularly stood out, cementing her top status by clinching her third consecutive course record. At the TCPS Twilight, she showcased her prowess by storming ahead and finishing in a record-breaking time of 19:31. Not only did she break the course record, but she also eclipsed her competitors by a staggering margin of 90 seconds, further underlining her exceptional form this season.
Weiss, on the other hand, also showcased his mettle by putting forth the only sub-17 performance of the day, clocking a swift 16:51. While Weiss's victory margin was slightly lesser compared to Burge's, it was still a testament to his dominance at this point in the 2023 Cross Country season.
On the team front, led by the dynamic duo of Burge and Riley Jackson, Hernando secured the top spot for the girls. In the boys' category, Saltillo Tigers emerged victorious.
The junior high races also had their fair share of action with Mary White and Anthony Vasquez crossing the finish line first in their respective categories.
Out-of-state Recap: Mississippi Athletes Shine in Tennessee
The 2023 City Auto Memphis Twilight Classic, held at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex in Memphis, Tennessee, was a stage set for brilliant performances. Mississippian athletes, competing out of state, displayed their prowess and earned their mark among the top finishers.
Andrew Brown's season can only be described as "Hollywood-esque." He emerged as the top Mississippian, expertly navigating the initial chaos at the start. A ninth-place finish in a time of 16:17 wasn't just impressive on its own; Brown also earned the distinction of being the top freshman to cross the line. His time enters the record books as the seventh-fastest ever by a Mississippian at this venue, placing him among esteemed company, nestled between notable names like William Fugate and Starkville's 2016 graduate, Patton Little.
But Brown wasn't the only Mississippian to shine. Oxford's Bailey Kosko made a significant splash, finishing as the second Mississippian and 14th overall in 16:27, closely followed by Madison Central's Colin Brannon in the 15th spot.
In the Varsity Girls race, Alex Lee's stellar season continued. After an impressive victory over Ella Rankin at the 2023 Victors Kickoff at the Quarry, Lee once again made headlines. She outperformed the 2 x MHSAA 6A 3200m Champion Brookelyn Morgan, securing an eighth-place finish in an impressive time of 19:38. This was a six-second improvement from her season opener. Whatever training adjustments Lee made over the summer are certainly paying dividends. Following Lee, Morgan rounded off with a respectable 17th place finish in 19:59, crossing as second overall Mississippian.
In team rankings, Madison Ridgeland Academy (MRA) stole the show on the girls' side, outpacing MHSAA 7A heavyweights like Tupelo and Madison Central. It's noteworthy that MRA achieved this feat seemingly without their top runner from last year, Mae Ellen Mallet.
The boys' team competition was intense, with Tupelo and Madison Central battling for supremacy. These two teams are the top contenders for the runner-up spot at the upcoming 2023 MHSAA 7A Cross Country Championships. On this day, however, Tupelo had the edge, securing sixth place, one spot ahead of Madison Central.
Hattiesburg Forerunners Stay Undefeated: The team made an impressive appearance at the 2023 Wildcat XC Open on the coast, bringing home their second consecutive victory this season. Dominance seems to be the Forerunners' mantra this year. Henry Richardson led the pack with an outright win, and with Noah Moudy and Sean Beard finishing as runner-up and in third, the team's show of strength was quite evident. But the men weren't alone in their achievements; the Lady Forerunners clinched a remarkable 56-point victory. Sydney Moudy stood out, capturing the individual title for the ladies.
Montgomery's Winning Streak Continues: Gauge Montgomery is having a fantastic season. At the JPS Meet, he clinched his third victory this season, continuing to establish himself as one of the athletes to watch.
Miller Shines for Hartfield: Kate Miller (Hartfield represented Hartfield brilliantly at the JPS Meet. She raced ahead of the competition to take the win in the girls' category, showcasing her skill and stamina.