When Adam Ward recruits runners for his men’s cross country team, he asks their high school coaches one main question: How independent are they?
The reason for the question is simple. Ward cannot control what his Augusta State runners do during the summer. So when guys like Dustin Ross return to Colorado, Ward can only hope they put in the extra work in preparation for the fall season.
Ward had little to worry about. During the summer, runners including walk-on Jaiden Brandt averaged 55 miles a week before running his first race in September.
“That,” Ward said, “is what I love about these guys.”
With their hard work during the summer, the Jaguars ran away with the Peach Belt Conference Championship last month.
Now, Augusta State laces it up in the Southeast Regional on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.
The Jaguars were picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason coaches poll and weren’t ranked in the region. Now, they’re the top Peach Belt squad in the region at sixth.
“At the start of the season, no one had us picked to win anything,” Ross said. “We’ve just come together as a team. And we put in a lot of good summer miles.”
The Augusta State men’s cross country program is in its second year after the school reinstated it after an eight-year absence. The team features 15 members, 14 of them underclassmen. Clay Holton, of Hephzibah, is the lone senior.
Augusta State capped an already successful year with its third victory in five events at last month’s Peach Belt meet. Ross and Brandt each completed the 8-kilometer race in less than 27 minutes, finishing fourth and seventh, respectively. Ross, a sophomore, and Brandt, a freshman, each earned a spot on the Peach Belt’s all-conference first team.
Robert Blackwelder finished 11th, while Matt Johnson placed one spot behind him – each was named to the Peach Belt second team. Holton came in 23rd, while Adam Aldridge finished 28th and Jimmy Spencer 34th. With its top five runners finishing in the top 25, Augusta State edged UNC Pembroke by five points.
Now, the Jaguars are looking to make their mark on the regional scene. Augusta State will compete in its first 10k of the season, and the team will have to finish no worse than second to advance to nationals.
“It’ll be different to see how we react to a 10k,” Brandt said. “I think coach has prepared us well.”