By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON – Roosters crowed a merry "cock-a-doodle-doo" to Saturday morning cross country runners and onlookers at the Honey Ridge Plantation.
South Effingham and Effingham County runners took the cue to rise and shine to their top performances of the season.
Mustangs Julian Howard and Lily McDonald won their first 5-kilometer races ever and surprising Rebels weren't far behind at the Honey Ridge 5K-at-the-Farm race.
"It was definitely a great day for South Effingham," SEHS coach Brandon Howard said. "This is our home course so we couldn't let these other teams from out of town take over our course."
Not a worry with Julian, Howard's son, and McDonald running personal-best times on a pristine 60-degree morning. Julian Howard finished with a time of 16:32.96, about 13 seconds ahead of teammate Tyler Phillips, topping the boys’ field of 132 runners.
Howard's performance was almost 19 seconds faster than his previous best this season (16:51.8) at the Bob Blastow Invitational on Aug. 26.
"After five years of running, (winning) felt pretty good," Howard said. "It was a rush. I couldn't feel my legs. At the end, I was just trying to lengthen my strides. I turned around and I looked and I thought, 'I've won the race.' "
It was a seminal moment for Julian, whose older brother Cailan, holds most of the Mustangs' long distance track and cross country records.
"It's hard not to compare when you have an older brother," Howard said. "That's a hard shoe to fill but I've had my own experiences."
Howard, a senior, was second to Phillips at region last season after recovering from stress fractures in his shin and femur during his sophomore season.
"(Julian) had a great track season (last spring) and he's building off of that," Coach Howard said. "As a coach, I love to see two competitors fighting it out because then they're pushing each other. As a dad, I couldn't be more proud. (Julian) needed that."
McDonald fought off similar injuries. She was off to a fast start last season when she suffered a stress fracture in her ankle and missed three cross country races.
Saturday, the 4-foot-9 senior came up big with a time of 19:41.16 – the second fastest 5K time in school history, trailing only Priscilla Cartwright's 19:03 in 2015.
"The crazy thing is I've been sick, coughing with bronchitis," McDonald said. "I passed (early leader Marin Bograd of Camden County) at the start of the second lap and I saw (former SEHS coach Laura Soles) and she was yelling "Run! You've got this!"
My teammates were cheering and I saw the time (approaching the finish line). It was amazing."
McDonald's previous best was 20:37.45 at Bob Blastow.
"She's unstoppable at this point. You can see the determination in her eyes," Coach Howard said. "She wants to run in college. She wanted to run 19 and she's been focused."
Effingham County coach PJ Richards saw some encouraging performances as well. Rebel freshman Chloe Adkins posted a time of 20:25.81 to finish second in her first varsity race. Adkins has been playing club soccer with Savannah United.
On the boys’ side, sophomore Theron Claridge placed third with his personal-best time of 17:03.30.
"Chloe started fast and when she finished I heard her say "I think I died," " Richards said.
"Theron's had a great start after missing a season because of a knee injury. I'm excited to see what they do in the future."
South's boys and girls won the team competitions. The Mustangs boys finished with 58 points to hold off Southeast Bulloch's 96 points in the 10-team field.
The ECHS boys were sixth.
In the girls race, South had 26 points to outdistance Savannah Christian's 82 among the eight teams. The Rebels only had four girls so they didn't have a team score.
Here are the top five individuals for South Effingham and Effingham County:
SEHS girls – 1. Lily McDonald (19:41.16), 4. Brooke Crickard (20:58.80), 6. Brianna Barber (21:37.21), 7. Patricia Backlund (21:48.88), 12. Magdeline Morgan (22:59.26).
ECHS girls – 2. Chole Adkins (20:25.81), 40. Winter Knapp (27:22.11); 43. Presley Krahne (27:54.00), 44. Elle Forwood (28:14.48).
SEHS boys – 1. Julian Howard (16:32.96), 2. Tyler Phillips (16:46.09), 5. Caiden Mason (17:17.61), 24. Domenic Harrison (18:42.81), 26. Ben Fluegel (18:44.94).
ECHS boys – 3. Theron Claridge (17:03.30), 21. Ayden Wine (18:34.29), 28. Jacob Conaway (18:49.35), 37. Joseph Esco (19:14.08), 50. Joey Zettler (20:00.30).