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Leaders have ECHS cross country moving in the right direction
ECHS Cross Country
Effingham County runners (left to right) Theron Claridge, Ellie Forwood, and Ayden Wine have been leaders of the cross country program. (Donald Heath/Special for the Effingham Herald.)

By Donald Heath

Special for the Effingham Herald

SPRINGFIELD – Two runners entering their senior seasons and a sophomore entering a world of potential get ready to lead Effingham County's cross country programs this season.

Coach PJ Richards said she'll count on four-year veteran Ayden Wine to be a leader on the boys’ team while senior Ellie Forwood directs the girls’ side.

And if a preseason scrimmage at Ware County on Aug. 24 is any indication, Rebel sophomore Theron Claridge, the overall winner of the boys race, might be found out in front often, literally.

"You almost have to be a leader if you're a senior," Wine said. "If you aren't, the team is going to fall apart. Someone has to take the role."

It's a new role for Wine, who watched school record setter Levi Thomas lead by example a year ago. Thomas broke the school mark in the 5K race several times before claiming his best time of 16:54 at the region meet last season.

Forwood has been in a similar predicament, seeing leadership passage go from Candace Kieffer (now at the University of Miami) to Brooke Maseda (now at Augusta University) during the past two years before coming her way.

"Candace and Brooke were two of the best friends I've ever had, so I have some big shoes to fill, I guess," Forwood said. "Cross country is mentally challenging so you have to understand what other people are going through. You have to be uplifting. The support you would want, you have to give to others as well."

Richards said her seniors' commitment to their teams has been valuable as both look to rebuild.

"They make the daily grind work," Richard said. "We live in an age when it's too easy to quit. That's when an encouraging word helps. Cross country is a sport without sidelines. You don't step off for a breather. When you see kids doing more than they thought they could, that's when you've won."

Claridge transferred from Richmond Hill, where he experienced success in middle school. His family moved to Effingham County last year, but he missed both the cross country and track seasons because of a knee injury.

He said a steroid injection helped his knee problems. Almost overnight, he's become the team's best runner.

Claridge said he's had a personal record of 17:50 in the 5K race.

"My goal is to break the school record of 16:54 by my junior year," said Claridge, who could be a force in the track season as well. He has a personal record of 5:24 in the 1600.

Richards expects Claridge, Wine, Jacob Conaway, Zander Martin and Joseph Esco to be the boys' top-five team scorers. Esco, a junior, will be running competitively for the first time.

Forwood, Toni Nevins, Presley Krahne, Winter Knapp and Chloe Adkins will be the girls' top-five contributing to the team score.

Knapp is a first-time runner. Richards said Adkins is a talented freshman who could place among the team's best runners.

A year ago at region, ECHS' girls’ team finished sixth and the boys’ team placed seventh. Richards, in her sixth year as head coach, called this season a rebuilding year after their most dependable runners, Maseda and Thomas, graduated.

But that's when leadership kicks in. The Rebels' season starts for real Sept. 7 with a meet hosted by Wayne County.

"Keeping everything positive is probably the most important thing," Wine said. "You can't be tearing people down."