WAXHAW — Winners of the past two 3A girls cross country state championships, the Cuthbertson cross country team has established itself as one of the top sports programs in Union County.

But with a potential three-peat up on the line, head coach Kirk Walsh has emphasized the importance of the process with his team rather than the end results. That focus has been particularly important for the Cavaliers this season, as the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the team’s usual schedule.

Unable to meet as an entire team this offseason because of group gathering protocols, the Cavaliers broke up into small, senior-led groups over the summer to train. Every Tuesday, Walsh would have a Zoom meeting with his seniors and coaching staff to share ideas and address any issues that arose.

Walsh praised his seniors for keeping the rest of the team focused on the task at hand over the course of the offseason.

“If we were all about chasing medals and trophies, there aren’t really many of those going on this summer,” Walsh said. “It would have been really easy to fall away, and I’m not saying we didn’t have some kids fall away. This is very tough to get through this time, for everybody, and we’re not immune to that. I do think we did have a little better time than some other teams because we continued to focus on staying connected as a family and staying connected on the daily process as our reason for being as opposed to the medals that are no longer an option over the course of the summer and the early fall.”

One of the seniors leading the charge this offseason has been Madeline Hill, an ECU commit who is entering her final season with the Cavaliers. Two years ago, Hill won the individual state championship at the 3A title meet, running the 5,000-meter (3.1 miles) race in a time of 18 minutes and 11.52 seconds.

Last season, Hill had to deal with injuries while also going through the recruiting process. The added stress was noticeable to Walsh, but he’s said that the senior has been much more clear-minded since her commitment.

“She’s really grown up since I first met her in sixth grade,” Walsh said. “Last year, there were some mental struggles, as everyone has, that she had to work through, but everything she worked through last year has served her moving into this year. She’s been an absolute rock for the team this summer.”

While there haven’t been any NCHSAA-sanctioned cross country events this school year, Hill and the rest of the Cavaliers have been able to compete in meets as a club team over the past few months. Earlier in October, the Cavaliers ran at the Alexander/Asics Invitational in Chattahoochee Hills, Ga. on Oct. 3 and emerged from the meet as the No. 21 ranked team in the country.

Competing against some of the top schools in the nation, Hill finished second in the 5,000-meter race with a time of 17:50.25, a new personal and school record. Overall, three Cuthbertson runners finished inside the top 25.

Outside of Hill and fellow senior Leah Helms, Cuthbertson will be led this season by an outstanding group of underclassmen. Currently running as the team’s No. 2 is sophomore Alyssa Preisano, who finished the Asics meet in a personal-best time of 18:08.32, good for eighth place. Fellow sophomore Lillian Nasta, who finished 10th in the 3A cross country championships in 2019, ran an 18:38.78 to finish 24th at the Asics meet earlier this month.

Rounding out Cuthbertson’s top group of runners are sophomore Marrissa Bosland and freshmen Justine Preisano, Charlotte Bell and Stella Kemes.

Cuthbertson and other county cross country teams can officially start practicing Nov. 4. The Cavaliers’ first meet will take place at home on Nov. 17.

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