Even though Northern Nash was listed as the official event host, South Johnston’s Jacob Gonzalez felt he had a distinct home-field advantage heading into Saturday’s NC High School Athletic Association 3A East Regional Boys Cross Country Championships at Red Oak Middle School.
Red Oak has hosted the regional the past four years, with Gonzalez winning every time except his sophomore season. He also went 4-for-4 at the Nash County layout during his club’s annual appearance at the Knights Invitational.
“I feel like this course is my second home,” said Gonzalez, a senior. “I have run really well here and like the woods and terrain. It’s kind of funny because the first time I ran here, I made a wrong turn, but was still able to win. What I have done here in the past gives me confidence when I come back.”
Gonzalez had no such directional issues Saturday as he roared to a convincing victory with a time of 15:47 — a new course record since it was revamped last year due to area logging activity.
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Gonzalez appeared determined from the outset. As his opponents stretched and did jumps before the start of the race, Gonzalez simply stood still with hands on his hips, staring directly forward.
For Gonzalez, it was more than just an opportunity to solidify his status as one of the area’s top distance runners. He was also prepared to atone for last week’s surprising loss to Cleveland’s Gable Dershem in the Two Rivers Conference Championships.
By the halfway point of the race, Gonzalez was 30 yards ahead of the nearest competitor.
“I was very focused,” Gonzalez said. “I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again. What happened (at the conference finals) motivated me and showed me that I needed to pick it up.”
Corinth Holders’ Austin Carroll was second at 15:59, while Dershem was third at 16:11. Wyatt Dershem, Gable’s twin brother, was fifth at 16:20.
Host Northern Nash picked up the team crown for the third consecutive year with 72 points, just eight tallies ahead of runner-up Corinth Holders. Cleveland earned the No. 4 position, thanks in part to the strong work of the Dershems.
The top four finishing teams in each regional advance to the Nov. 5 state championships.
Three Johnston County runners collected Top-10 finishes in the girls event, led by Cleveland junior Jessica Cullins at seventh place with a time of 20:15. Corinth Holders’ Callie Blandford was ninth at 20:17.73, and Cleveland’s Jasmine Cullins — Jessica’s twin sister — was 10th at 20:23.
Smithfield-Selma’s Gwyn Reece grabbed 14th place to earn an individual state championship bid. Her run came in at 20:34.52.
The Spartans’ Caleb Silver is headed for the boys state championships as well, taking ninth place in 16:34.
West Carteret was the runaway girls team champion with 52 points, but Corinth Holders earned a state spot with a second-place performance of 76 points.