Cross country runners representing nine teams in the Western Highlands Conference took on the trails at the Black Mountain campus of Montreat College, Oct. 24.
When the dust settled, the Owen Warhorses and Warlassies emerged as conference champions.
Owen junior Noah Lehman led the way for the Warhorses, finishing the 5K in 17:18.8. His teammate, freshman Jaheem Ohara, finished second, with a time of 17:48.3.
"The top seven runners were from our school," said Owen boys cross country coach Bob Sadlemire.
Lehman started the race in front and remained in the top position throughout.
"He's been a considerably better runner this year than last, and he finished fourth in this event last year," Sadlemire said. "He led this race the whole way and by the first mile he was probably ahead by 20 or 30 seconds. He maintained a pretty good lead right from the start."
Several Warhorse runners recorded personal records in the championship meet, which included runners from Polk, Avery and Mountain Heritage.
The Warlassies faced off against cross country teams from Madison, Mitchell, Avery and Polk.
"We had five out of the top 10 finishers," said Warlassies coach Kate Dost. "When you have all of your scorers in the top 10, that usually means you're going to win."
Junior Laila Burk finished with a time of 20:19.1, less than a minute behind Polk's Olivia Overholt. Sisters Hannah and Emma Larios finished third and fourth, respectively, behind Burk.
"Hannah is a very committed runner, and she attends running camps," Dost said. "This year, she convinced Laila to join her and I was happy to see that because it really paid off. Laila is a dual-sport athlete in the fall, so that extra work really paid off for her."
The conference championship was the third straight for the Warlassies, and the team is poised to continue that success in the future.
"This team is pretty young," Dost said. "Hannah and Laila are juniors, and they've been great for us the last few years. We have three freshman in that group and a couple of sophomores as well. We don't have any seniors on the roster."
Of the top five Warhorse runners, four are juniors and one is a freshman, according to Sadlemire.
"One of our top seven runners is a sophomore and we have a couple of younger guys who I think will be really good next year," he said.
Both Owen teams will head to Newton, Saturday, Nov. 2, for the 2A West Regional Meet, where they will face off against teams from Hayesville to Statesville.
"It will be tough to make it to state," Sadlemire said. "This year they realigned the regions and some of the best teams in the state are now in our region. So there is no guarantee that we will qualify for state, but are very capable of securing one of those spots."
Both coaches are focusing on keeping their runners ready for the 32-team meet.
"You can't really build any new fitness in a week," Dost said. "So preparing is mostly maintenance. There's also an aspect of emotional work, because at this point in the season everyone is tired. But, you have to keep the energy going and keep them focused on the prize."
Sadlemire will work on preparing his team to face the challenge of running in a large pack.
"Historically we have struggled in some of these bigger events," he said. "It's tough, because if you don't get out fast you have to work through a large pack of runners and it becomes harder to get around them."
But the flat trails in Newton should be favorable for Owen, the coach added.
"It's a very even path, and our team does well on flat courses," Sadlemire said.
Like the Warhorses, the Warlassies are setting out to earn a spot in the state championship.
"On paper, we should be four or five in the region," Dost said. "But, that's on paper, so we can't take anything for granted. We have to keep everyone healthy, and we have a good shot at getting into states."