By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
RINCON — South Effingham freshman Tyler Phillips had a simple game plan for the Region 2-6A Cross Country Championships at Richmond Hill — start out fast, maintain and surge at the end.
One hundred meters into the race, Phillips had the lead and didn’t have to sweat anything in the rear-view mirror the rest of the way.
“This freshman year has been everything I’ve wanted,” said Phillips, who now hopes to parlay his region title with a top showing at the Class AAAAAA state championships in Carrollton on Friday.
Effingham County’s Candace Kieffer will join Phillips in Carrollton as a region champion after blowing away the girls’ field.
Teamwise, SEHS’ boys and girls and the ECHS girls finished among the top four region teams and advanced to state. The Rebel boys were fifth and fell just short.
Phillips was a winner at the Fishy Invitational hosted by Richmond Hill on the same course on Oct. 8. This time, he had to negotiate rain and a muddy course, but still posted a 16:57.73 (about eight seconds slower) to defeat runnerup Corey Adamski of Richmond Hill by about seven seconds.
“Tyler’s been running since sixth grade and he’s a master of his craft,” SEHS coach Laura Soles said. “The biggest thing about Tyler is putting a bridle on him and trying to hold him back. He’ll run all day if you let him. He’s like Forrest (Gump).”
After an early Saturday morning workout at the Ebenezer Retreat Center, Phillips doesn’t dispute the correlation with the 1994 Academy Award winning movie when he smiles and says, “I like miles.”
Phillips ran a 16:06.62 at Wayne County three weeks ago, at first thinking he broke the school record but later finding out he was just a second behind the mark set in 2002.
“I wanted the school record because it’s older than me,” said the 15-year-old, smiling.
Phillips said he’d like a top-seven performance at state, along the way beating a runner who will be among the favorites at state in 2021.
“I think that’s doable,” he said. “I like running in more competitive races like that because it’s less isolated and less of a mental game.”
On the girls side, Kieffer, who has won every race she has entered with her high school team this season, will also be shooting for a top performance at state.
Her time of 20:28.73 at region was about 38 seconds faster than the second-place runner.
Earlier in October, the junior set the school record with a time of 19:21.84 at Wayne County.
The ECHS girls placed second as a team. Behind Kieffer were Megan Hilton (22:14.02, 5th), Shelby Hilton (24:28.77, 11th), Olivia Lott (24:51.42, 14th) and Brooke Maseda (27:21.58, 28th) — all earning a chance to compete at state.
The ECHS boys finished fifth as a team and just missed a trip to state. Individually, Levi Thomas led the Rebels with a time of 19:31.48 to place 23rd.
For the second-place SEHS boys, scoring points along with Phillips were Cailan Howard (17:09.47, 3rd), Jacob Mitchell (17:37.52, 7th), Joey Burdick (18:28.10, 14th) and Julian Howard (18:29.72, 15th).
The SEHS girls placed fourth despite missing their top four runners because of a COVID-related quarantine. But the reserves came through led by junior Madison Lockhart’s ninth-place finish with a time of 24:03.17. Lily McDonald (24:30.14, 12th), Mia Fitzpatrick
(25:59.21, 16th), Katelyn Harris (26:37.15, 20th) and Carolyn Motes (26:39.41, 21st) also accounted for team points.