Capital's Peyton Panger was all alone at the finish line in the MSAC meet.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In sports, youth and inexperience are usually ingredients for disaster.But if there's any team that's prepared to buck a trend, it may be the Capital girls cross country team, because the Cougars have been doing just that all season.Capital will have one more crack at making some unexpected noise when the state meet begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at Cabell Midland High School in Ona.Consider that first-year coach Jared Smith was finally able to build the first full squad in Capital's history out of four sophomores and three freshmen.
While many coaches have to pick and choose who will run at which events, Smith rolled with the same seven girls all season, and that seven thundered into Meadowood Park in Tornado last week and claimed a Class AAA Region 3 championship, the first such title for Capital."The girls have continued to improve all season long, they've worked so well together and they genuinely like each other," Smith said. "It's a phenomenal group to be around. They work so hard and they listen. There are so many amazing things to take into account; the lord has truly blessed us. The talent we have is unreal."As a freshman last year, Peyton Panger fired the warning shot that maybe something was brewing in terms of cross country at Capital. She won the Region 3 championship - a feat she repeated this year - and went on to finish 10th at last season's state meet.Still just a sophomore, Panger won't let a final position at one race define her year."I'm just hoping to run my best time of the season," Panger said. "I know I've worked really hard and where I come in is not as important as remembering the whole season is not based on one race. I've had a great season and I'm just blessed to be going to the state meet. There's a lot of talent from the North, from Hurricane, Winfield, Woodrow, and a bunch of good girls from other places. I'm just lucky to be included in this whole group of girls."No matter what the results from Saturday end up being, Smith and Panger agree that she has improved both as a runner and a person from last year."I feel I've made marked improvement," Panger said. "I've put more effort into it than last year. I ran a lot more miles over the summer, went to a couple camps where I really thought about form and race psychology and feeling good throughout the season, and I put in a lot more effort behind the scenes. It's the hardest I've ever worked at anything in my life and it has shaped my whole life because I think about it all the time. That improvement is not only through running, I'm much more driven about everything.""She has improved a tremendous amount on her strength," Smith said. "She has more confidence than last season and she's taken on the role as a leader. She's been consistently training and her ultimate goal is a top-five individually. With the talent in the state, I believe she can do it, but it's going to be a dogfight. When it comes down to it, she has a stronger will than any runner on the female side that I've ever worked with."In fact, it was a promise Smith made to Panger before the season that has allowed all of the Cougars' newfound success to be possible."One of my goals was to field a team of girls to build around Peyton as our leader," Smith said. "One of the promises I made to her at the beginning of the season is that I would get her a team and have a strong team for her. At the beginning of the season I made her a captain and I couldn't say enough about Peyton and the job she's done."The odds are stacked against the Cougars as Capital is not ranked in runwv.com's latest cross country power rankings. Panger is tabbed as the No. 8 girls runner but no other Cougar is listed in the top 50.
Smith and his team have firm aspirations entering Saturday."I'd like to have Peyton get all-state," Smith said. "Our goal for the team is to finish in the top 50 percent. There are 12 teams, so I'd like to finish in the top six."In all likelihood, the Cougars will continue their meteoric rise over the next couple of seasons. Smith said a couple of girls from other athletic teams have made commitments to run next year and he expects a handful of freshmen to make big contributions, all while adding another year of strength, maturity and speed to the seven runners who sport the blue and silver now.Panger offered some unique perspective about watching the construction of a team one brick at a time."I see it getting better and the sky is the limit," Panger said of the team. "There's a lot of upcoming freshmen next year that are interested in running and enjoy it. I ran with some of them in middle school, I talked to them about coming out for cross country when they were younger and they're still with it. It's been really cool to see that growth and it's cool to think, 'I was there when this all started.' "Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, email@example.com, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.