SMITHFIELD — It was business as usual for Corinth Holders’ girls cross-country team on the grounds of Community Par. But the inaugural Two Rivers 3A Conference championships delivered a pair of surprises for South Johnston’s boys in their portion of the 3.1-mile event, contested under ideal racing conditions.
Led by unbeaten junior Arden Vessie’s pace-setting run, the Pirates’ girls continued their perfect season in the Oct. 16 meet, placing five runners among the top nine overall finishers in cruising to the team championship with a total of 22 points.
That effort far out-distanced Western Harnett, which kept early pace with the Pirates, placing three runners among the top eight finishers, but didn’t have the overall depth of the champions, with their fourth and fifth finishers placing 15th and 16th overall and a team score of 43.
Triton took third place with 76 points, with host Smithfield-Selma piling up 122 and Cleveland 129.
On the boys side, it was a rare off-day for the Trojans following an unbeaten conference season.
South Johnston finished a disappointing third behind team champion Western Harnett, which placed five runners among the top 10 finishers, good for 29 points, and Corinth Holders, which tallied 47.
The Trojans, who saw freshman Jacob Gonzalez defeated for the first time this season, tallied 69 points, followed by Cleveland (92 points), Triton (149) and Smithfield-Selma (151).
Western Harnett junior Matthew Calvelo stunned Gonzalez by posting a time of 16:45 for a 16-second victory for medalist honors as well as the runner of the year award.
“I feel bad for them,” said South coach Joe Loia of his squad. “They really wanted to win a conference championship today. I told them it’s hard to run your best every race. We have two good freshmen and a couple of sophomores so hopefully, we will be able to get back next year with a shot at winning.
“Western did a nice job; they ran a great race. Jacob gave everything he had today, but the other guy (Calvelo) was plain out great.”
Vessie didn’t waste any time breaking from the pack and asserting herself at the outset of the race, a trend she has maintained throughout the season.
That start enabled Vessie to build a 50-yard lead through the opening mile of the race, which she stretched into a 45-second victory over teammate and runner-up Cameron Rutherford, winning in a time of 20:27.
And while the tandem usually runs one-two for the team, Vessie said the margin of victory wasn’t a statement, but rather by design.
“We knew it might turn out like this today,” Vessie said. “We had our own tactics and strategies – it worked out the way we planned.”
Vessie admitted this was her hardest effort of the season.
“I wanted to conserve my energy today,” Vessie said, explaining she wanted to save herself for the upcoming NCSHAA 3A East Regionals at Red Oak Middle School in Red Oak, hosted by Northern Nash in two weeks.
“But I still pushed myself and I’m happy about that,” Vessie added. “I think I got myself into the right mindset today.”
Rounding out the Pirates’ scorers were Taylor Stevens (fifth, 22:20); Abigail Pittman (seventh, 22:44) and Rachel Strickland (ninth, 22:57).
Megan Chappell finished 10th (23:08) and Hannah Canterberry 12th (23:20), but neither figured in the team score.
“They (Pirates) were really feeding off what they have done the past season,” said Corinth Holders Coach Joe Johnson. “They work together well, and feed off each other.
“Arden and Cameron are big encouragers of the other girls – they have pushed the others where they accomplished the best they possibly can – that’s all you want from them.”
Smithfield-Selma was paced by Kara Harrison (23:24) for 13th overall.
Jasmine Kaur also competed for the Spartans, finishing in 35:55.
Cleveland was paced by Hannah Evans (26:04), followed by Estefanie Pedrozo.
South’s Dava McLamb placed sixth overall in a time of 22:34.
Calvelo also used a strong start, surprising Gonzalez from the opening gun, and gradually opening a gap that the Trojans standout was unable to overcome.
“It was a fast start,” Gonzalez said. “I never thought he was going to pull off like he did, actually. I couldn’t keep up with him because he had a fast start-up – he knew what was happening.
“I was catching up, but every dog has his day, you know?”
Gonzalez was expecting to run a 5:18 first mile, but Calvelo made those plans moot by running an opening mile of 5:08.
“He (Gonzalez) is really a competitor and has been pushing me all year long,” Calvelo said. “When I got out in the race really far ahead of him, I didn’t want him to catch me. I said to myself, ‘I can do this’ because I felt him really coming up strong behind me.”
Calvelo started looking over his shoulder at one point in the race, and spectators were telling him that Gonzalez was gaining on him.
“I never saw him coming up behind me,” Calvelo said. “But I kept pushing throughout the race. It was the run of my life, probably.”
South couldn’t keep pace with the Eagles, nor the surprising Pirates, as those two teams dominated the first 15 individual finishes.
Bailey Blackwell, Gabe Patton and Patrick Myers gave Corinth Holders the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place individuals, but Western Harnett, which claimed three of the top five finishers, sealed the team outcome by taking home the ninth and 10th spots.
In addition to their top trio, the Pirates received a 12th-place finish from Chandler Condie and 14th from Jake Lewis to earn the runner-up team honors.
“My boys worked hard all summer, they worked hard during the season, and I’m proud of the effort,” Johnson said. “They really proved themselves today.
“Several of our guys had their best times of the year.”
Nick LaCerda and Austin Carroll completed the Pirates competitors.
South, unbeaten throughout the season, added score from John Cuppett, Evan Raynor, Cody Morrison and Danny Perez to its total.
Cleveland’s Gale Dersham finished third overall in 17:51, while Steven May finished 16th in a time of 19:09.
Following that duo for the Rams were Austin Blumenberg, Noah Pipes, Nick Loscalzo, Adam Mya and Kit Bertram.
John Hess was the Spartans’ top performer, finishing with a time of 19:40, followed by Tristan Silver in 20:24 and Austin Young in 20:28.