By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
GUYTON – Long-distance runner Tyler Phillips enters his final year at South Effingham knowing it's now or never.
Phillips has been a region champion in track and cross country. He's posted fourth-place and sixth-place finishes at State in cross country.
But school records have eluded the senior in the major categories for a distance runner – track's 3200 and 1600 runs and cross country's 5000-kilometer run.
"There is that feeling that this is it. You have to put it together because this is your last chance in high school," Phillips said before a recent Mustang practice.
Phillips is about 12 seconds behind Cailan Howard's 5K school record of 15:51.88, 10 seconds behind Howard's 9:44.31 in the 3200 and six seconds behind Howard's 4:28.21 in the 1600.
A good year and Phillips leaves with all the school records and probably cements a legacy as the Mustangs’ all-time best distance runner.
But overcoming injuries have been bigger obstacles than steep hills for Phillips. He missed his sophomore track season with a stress fracture. He's had an IT Band injury (inflamed tissue from hip to knee) and, most recently, pulled out of a season-opening race in Augusta because of a bad back.
"I think it's hurt him not having a full year of cross country and track (in two years)," said SEHS coach Brandon Howard, Cailan's father. "We're hoping that he breaks his (best time of) 16:03, but right now we're seeing times already off because of the heat."
Phillips, always the running strategist, says he alternated between daily long-distance runs followed by shorter runs throughout the summer to prepare for the season.
A year ago, he won region with a time of 16:13 on the College of Coastal Georgia course in Brunswick and his 16:03 came on the same course at the Run the Plank meet.
Last season, Phillips placed sixth at the state championships in Carrollton with a time of 16:49.04. Marist's Tommy Latham posted a winning time of 15:58.17.
As a freshman in Class 5A (before the Mustangs moved up in classification to 6A), Phillips was two seconds slower, but finished two spots higher in fourth at State.
"I'm a little frustrated about how difficult 6A has gotten," Phillips said. "Getting sixth last year in that field was a lot harder than fourth in the other field. You just look at the numbers and you understand. I just wish I was (running) in some of those other classifications."
Mustang boys, girls look for high region finishes
South's girls placed second in region last season and now set their sights on champion Glynn Academy.
Junior Magdeline Morgan posted the team's best time last season with 21:06.15 at Honey Ridge and also had a team-best fourth place finish at region.
Lily McDonald, a senior, was off to a great start last season with a personal-best 21:08.88 at the Bob Blastow Invitational before suffering a stress fracture. She still finished sixth at region.
Coach Brandon Howard, who co-coaches the entire program with his wife Laura, will be looking for others to step up. Brianna Barber was the team's top finisher at this year's opening meet in Augusta. Patricia Backlund and Mia Fitzpatrick will be expected to contribute to the five scorers. Freshmen Lydia Alterman, Nora Mason and Brooke Crickard add depth. Crickard has the middle school record in the 800-meter run.
The SEHS boys have a similar one-two punch with Phillips and Julian Howard. The duo finished one-two at region last season, but the team was a distant third behind Evans and Lakeside. Julian's top time was 16:34, 21 seconds behind Phillips at region.
Caiden Mason, Domenic Harrison and Ben Fluegel are scoring candidates. Mason was the team's top finisher at the season-opener in Augusta.
Coach Howard said wrestlers Emilio Santana and Mayson Young – both first-time cross country runners – could break into the top five.South boys and girls will be in action Saturday at the Bob Blastow Invitational in Whitesburg