By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
It’s cross country season and two of the county’s top long-distance runners, South Effingham’s Tyler Phillips and Effingham County’s Candace Kieffer, will be looking to make another run at the elite in Georgia.
Phillips placed fourth in the boys Class AAAAAA championships in Carrollton last season, while Kieffer was 11th at state among the girls.
Certainly, there’s a focus on individual performance in cross country, but team unity is equally important. Region champions Phillips and Kieffer are leaders in more ways than one.
Phillips, just a sophomore who is a few seconds shy of David Pleines’ school-record 16:03, started a group chat for runners, Mustangs coach Laura Soles said.
Kieffer, a senior and ECHS record holder, teamed with SEHS’ Cheyenne Ryan to raise money for underprivileged high school programs, displaying the unique bonds between the sport and running community.
“We’re not the type of teams that are going steal each other’s mascots,” Rebels coach P.J. Richards said. “We can be competitive with one another and still promote camaraderie.”
Both schools share another common goal for their boys and girls teams — chase down perennial Region 2-AAAAAA kingpin Richmond Hill.
The South Effingham boys lost to the Wildcats at region last season, but behind Phillips and Cailan Howard, the Mustangs claimed bragging rights at state by finishing a school-best second as a team behind Cambridge and, more importantly, ahead of fourth-place Richmond Hill.
The SEHS boys are off to another fast start after capturing first place in the Peach State Preview at Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst on Saturday.
Phillips, who has recovered from a hip injury that was problematic during the spring track season, was the winner at Jeff Davis with a time of 17:10.48. Phillips and Howard (fourth and fifth individually at state last season) are joined by returnees Julian Howard, Cailan’s younger brother, and Joey Burdick.
Karistopher Gadsden was the No. 5 scorer for the Mustangs at Jeff Davis.
Zane Bell, Cesar Martinez, Domenic Harrison, Carter Flowers and Isaiah Campbell are also expected to contribute.
The SEHS girls also placed first at the Peach State Preview. Ryan leads an experienced returning group that includes Diya Patel, Melanie Ripley, Lily McDonald and Madison Lockhart.
Soles said the SEHS girls would be bolstered by a group of freshmen who worked hard during the summer.
You can never have enough runners. The Mustangs suffered an outbreak of COVID-19 just before the region meet last season but finished fourth mostly with junior varsity runners to advance to state.
Ryan, who missed region and state last season, ran a 22:24.18 to place second at Jeff Davis on Saturday.
For Effingham County, Kieffer, who often runs in meets as an independent, posted a school-record time of 18:48.50 at a meet in Huntsville, Ala., last season.
On Saturday, she kicked off the season with a fifth-place showing (20:49.55) at the Athens Running Company Season Opener.
Teamwise, Richards will count on returners Brooke Maseda, Shelby Hilton and Olivia Lott to be among the team’s top five. Hope Harden, Ivey Rahn, Kailey Exley, Alissa Wall and Ellie Forwood are newcomers who will be asked to contribute.
On the boys side, returnees Seth Moye, Levi Thomas, Will Collins and Amari Branch will form the nucleus of a group looking to improve at least one place and advance among the top four in region.
Tristan Kurtz, Zander and Zafra Martin, Aaron Mordarski and Truett Thompson add team depth.
After a couple of cancellations, the Rebels hope to begin their season Sept. 4 at the Beaufort (S.C.) Invitational.