The final Greater Neuse River 4A Conference cross country championship featured a bit of the old and the new Wednesday at Wendell Community Park.
The winning duo of individual Knightdale runners hit on both of those notes: senior Aleena Cruz won her third straight girls championship and junior Ares Epps won his first conference championship in just his second year of running.
The team standings had an oldie — West Johnston’ girls — and a relative newbie — Rolesville’s boys — atop the awards stand.
With realignment coming next fall, the eight conference members will be split into four different directions and two classifications.
Cruz and Epps both won in convincing fashion. Cruz by 44 seconds in 20 minutes, 3.21 seconds over teammate Alayna Suttie and another Knight, Rebecca Davis, in third at 21:01.74.
“I kept my stride the whole race, which is something I wanted to do,” Cruz said. “And I was able to keep positive thoughts throughout the whole race. I’ve had a lot of negative thoughts in some races this year. I didn’t let that happen today.”
West Johnston’s girls beat Knightdale’s by just four points, offsetting the Knights’ 1-2-3 individual finish with five runners in the top 14. The Wildcats had 48 points to Knightdale’s 52. Harnett Central was third (81) and Rolesville took fourth (95).
The runner-up finish followed up the Knights’ team win last year. West Johnston had swept the GNRC team championships in seven of the previous nine years. Rolesville, which captured its first conference championship in any sport at these championships last fall, repeated as boys team champ.
“Those two really push me a lot,” Cruz said of Suttie and Davis. “Last year, I really didn’t have anybody to challenge me in practice. It’s made me a much better runner and made our team much better as well.”
Hayley Whollery led West with a fifth place finish, just behind Southeast Raleigh’s Eboni Roberson. Garner’s Sierra Moore was sixth. Kelly Christ of West Johnston was eighth.
“I am proud of the effort the kids put forth,” said West Johnston coach Patrick Shaw. “The girls really stepped up with Hayley and Kelly leading the way. I am extremely happy for them.”
West’s Vienna Prendergast added a 10th place finish for the Wildcats.
Erica Burke grabbed 15th place for Clayton in 23;35.25, while teammate Grace Amigh was 17th, just behind West’s Chloe Milliron.
Epps, who started the school year at GNRC member Clayton, joined the Knightdale boys team a couple of weeks into the season and has quickly become a team leader and standout runner. He won in 16:25.74, ahead of Harnett Central’s Laderique McNeill (17:02.83) and West Johnston’s Kyle Roberts (17:12.94).
“The race played out like I wanted it to,” Epps said. “I stayed with the pack early, moved up about a mile in and picked up my pace on the last lap around the park to pull away.”
First-year Knightdale coach Jason de Noble was impressed by the runs of both of the Knights’ champions and has been impressed by their work in races and race prep but also their ability to help lead a very tight Knights’ squad.
“Aleena just has a great passion for running and being the best that she can,” de Noble said. “Ares has a high drive to win and is very competitive. He probably would have been one of our captains if he had been here to start the year. He’s going to continue to be a great runner and is turning into a super leader for our team.”
Rolesville’s boys team didn’t have a runner finish in the top eight but had all five of its scoring runners come in between 9th and 17th place to post a score of 65 points, seven ahead of West. Stephen Strong was ninth for the Rams and Christian Pigues took 12th.
“We didn’t quite have the depth in the guys race to get it done,” Shaw said, “but we had some really solid individual races on that side.”
Clayton took third and Garner was fourth among boys teams.
Julian Clark of West Johnston finished fifth, behind Knightdale’s Charles Pumbu. Garner’s Jacobi Asor-Sallah took sixth at 17:23.88; Clayton’s Ethan Frey (17:31.99) and Banks Evans (17:37.57) were seventh and eighth.
Clayton’s Andrew Amaya rounded out the top 10.
Blake Boyette came in 13th to pace the East Wake boys runners at 18:22.46.
Harnett Central was fifth in the boys team standings, while Knightdale took sixth. East Wake came in seventh and Southeast Raleigh was eighth.
Next up for the conference’s top runners will be the challenging 4A Mideast Regional Championships at WakeMed Park on Oct. 29. The meet features some of the top teams in the state from the Cap-8 and Southwestern Athletic Conference joining the GNRC teams.
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Two Rivers 3A championships delayed
The Two Rivers 3A Conference Cross Country Championships were a starting gun shot away from getting rolling as well on Wednesday when the call to postpone the event because of the string of accidents on I-95 and the chemical fire that resulted from one of those crashes. The cloud of smoke from the fire was easily visible at the race site at Smithfield-Selma High School/Smithfield Community Park.
The races were moved to Thursday at 1 p.m. back in Smithifeld.