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Photos by Sam Chandler.
Sparked by first-place finishes from freshman Lainey Phelps and sophomore Will Stone, pictured, the Patriot girls and boys ran away with Class 6A state championships.
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The Homewood girls show off their state cross-country championship trophy, their first in school history.
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Will Stone (center) and Paul Selden (right) paced the Homewood boys to their fifth-straight state title.
The writing was on the wall, and Lars Porter knew it.
Almost everyone did.
In the days and weeks leading up to the Nov. 12 AHSAA State Cross Country Championships, it had become brazenly apparent the Homewood High School cross-country teams were perfectly positioned for a state title sweep.
They had front-runners; they had depth, and on Nov. 3, they had cruised through sectionals.
“We as coaches are not calling plays. We’re not running the race for them,” Porter said after the 6A, Section 3 meet. “It’s their story to write.”
The Patriots authored their own narrative on Nov. 12. In an instant, the lead penciled on the wall transformed into ink stamped in the record books.
History had been made.
Sparked by first-place finishes from freshman Lainey Phelps and sophomore Will Stone, the Patriot girls and boys ran away with the Class 6A state championships on a picturesque Saturday at Oakville Indian Mounds Park in Moulton.
The Homewood girls pummeled their closest challenger, Florence, by 52 points to clinch their first state cross-country championship in school history. The Homewood boys, meanwhile, bested runner-up Cullman 55-72 to secure their fifth state title in as many years.
“It’s crazy to think that we just won both of them. It’s a reflection of their hard work and what they’ve done,” said Porter, the Patriots’ fifth-year head coach who has yet to leave a state meet without a blue trophy. “In some ways it’s shocking that they were able to come together and pull it off, and in other ways they just did what they’ve been doing all season and competed hard.”
The Homewood girls had come close in recent years, finishing as runners-up in both 2012 and 2014. The team, in fact, has not placed outside the top four since Porter’s arrival.
But what pushed the Patriots past their previous threshold was an influx of young talent. At state, four of the team’s top seven runners were freshmen, and six were underclassmen.
Porter called their collective performance “groundbreaking.”
“Our girls team is young. They’re hungry. They’re cohesive. They enjoy each other, so we hope this is the first of several to come,” Porter said. “Signs point to at least having the potential for that.”
The future looks equally as promising for Phelps, who claimed her first individual state championship in landslide fashion. Her 5K time of 18 minutes, 2.13 seconds outdistanced her closest competitor by nearly 80 ticks of the clock. Florence’s Mary Claire Ridgeway took second in 19:21.73.
“I had a great race,” Phelps said. “The time wasn’t exactly what I was going for, but sometimes it’s hard to push yourself.”
Phelps led wire-to-wire, as she pulled away from the field less than 100 meters from the starting line. The gap only widened over the remaining three miles.
“Unbelievable maturity to run 18:02 all by herself from start to finish,” Porter said.
Fellow freshman Celie Jackson was Homewood’s second finisher. She placed fifth in 19:32.26. Sophomore Audrey Nabors (ninth, 19:52.94), junior Hanna Brook Gibbons (16th, 20:15.99) and senior Caroline Smith (20th, 20:40.18) capped the Patriots’ five scoring runners. Jackson and Nabors joined Phelps as All-State honorees thanks to their top 15 finishes.
“It’s amazing,” Phelps said, “the group of girls as athletes and as people.”
Like Phelps, Stone won the first individual state title of his young career to help catalyze a Patriot victory.
His triumph, however, did not come without contest.
Stone and senior teammate Paul Selden worked together throughout the race as they battled Opelika’s Ben Garner. Garner entered the meet with Alabama’s fastest 5K time, but he had reportedly been dealing with an injury prior to state.
The trio ran as a pack for much of the competition before Stone made his decisive move with a mile to go.
He gradually opened a gap over the race’s final third and finished in 16:01.40. Garner took second in 16:13.60, and Selden took third in 16:17.57.
“I got a bad cramp at about the 2-mile mark, and I was honestly nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to hold on,” Stone said, “but it went away and I realized I had to go — it was the time.”
Along with Stone and Selden, junior Alvin Finch (14th, 17:08.67) and freshman Carson Bedics (15th, 17:10.63) earned All-State honors. Junior Azariah Kipchumba rounded out the team’s scoring with a 29th-place finish in 17:34.77.
The triumph extended Homewood’s control of its classification to a fifth-straight year, which moved the Patriots into a second-place tie for most consecutive boys cross-country championships in state history. Hamilton High School also won five in a row from 1986 to 1991. The Randolph School possesses the all-time record, having won seven straight titles from 2005 to 2011.
“Sometimes in running you don’t really know what you’re doing it for,” Selden said. “But with this team, I know that I’m pushing them to become one of the best teams in state history.”