As the joke at Georgia Regents goes, Jaiden Brandt is saving his best for his final race.
The Jaguar senior is seeking his first cross country win. Ever.
He didn’t win an event in high school. Brandt’s been oh so close in college, but he’s still been short.
Now, he gets what’s likely his final opportunity – even though he knows winning is probably unrealistic because of the strong competition.
Brandt, along with his Georgia Regents teammates, is competing Saturday in the NCAA Division II Championships in Spokane, Wash. Last year, he competed in the national championships as an individual, finishing 83rd.
Brandt and coach Adam Ward recently joked about Brandt saving his best for last and possibly breaking through.
Realistically, he’s setting his sights on All-American honors, which go to the top 40 finishers.
“He’s going to be so fresh and ready for nationals, he’s going to win his first race,” Ward said with a laugh. “He’s got one more. He may as well make it count.”
Brandt has been a big part of his team’s success this year. With fellow all-region runners Preston Jones and Dustin Ross, Brandt has helped the team win three of its six races. Georgia Regents’ third-place showing in the Southeast Regional qualified the team for the nationals for the first time.
Brandt earned Peach Belt Conference Runner of the Year honors after posting three runner-up finishes, a third and a fifth. He almost won the Jaguar Invitational in September, but Ross beat him to the line by a foot – Brandt lost by .025 seconds.
In the Peach Belt Championships, Brandt finished in second by two seconds. At the Southeast Regional, he rallied in the second half of the race to finish 18 seconds out of first.
“If I can just maintain this postseason, second-place streak,” Brandt said, “I’ll be thrilled.”
Running has always been in his blood. Brandt’s mother, Gina, was the high school state 2-mile champion in Colorado. Jaiden ran cross country at Augusta Christian, but just to stay in shape for basketball.
Brandt started his college career at USC Aiken, but he switched to Georgia Regents to major in music. After competing in the Augusta Half-Marathon in 2011, he decided to walk on to the cross country team. His first season, he earned the first of three consecutive all-conference and all-region honors.
“When he decides to do something, he does it really well,” said USC Aiken women’s basketball coach Mike Brandt, Jaiden’s father. “My wife and I are very proud of him. He’s got great dedication.”
Last year, Brandt got a taste of the national championships in Joplin, Mo. Runners set out on a fast pace, and Brandt set a personal record in the first 5k by 30 seconds. He finished the 10,000-meter race in 31 minutes, 8 seconds, missing becoming an All-American by 44 seconds and an Academic All-American by seven seconds.
“Just going the first time was fun and interesting,” Brandt said. “This year, I kind of know what to expect.”
After last season, Brandt took a week off and then restarted his training. Because of the consistent workouts, he said he’s now 50 seconds quicker than he was this time last year.
Brandt’s athletic career doesn’t end with the national championships. In the spring, he’ll run in the 5k and 10k for the outdoor track team. In May, Brandt will graduate with his music degree. Then, he said, he hopes to go straight into occupational therapy school.
Brandt is trying to apply for one more year of cross country eligibility with the NCAA, but he said the odds of getting it are slim. If he doesn’t, he said he’s pleased with his career – even if he doesn’t have a win.
“I don’t know how I could’ve gone to school without cross,” Brandt said. “It really motivates you to get your schoolwork done. It’s been a positive, building lifelong friendships.”