Photo: Ashville High’s Joe Stevens passes the three-mile mark en route to winning the Class 4A boys cross country championship last Saturday (Nov. 6) in Oakville. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Rather than 169 fellow competitors, it was a tree that turned out to be Joe Stevens’ stiffest competition last Saturday (Nov. 6) at the AHSAA state cross country meet at Oakville.
Ranked No. 1 going into the Class 4A boys 5K, the Ashville High junior was neck and neck with Munford’s Dakota Frank just prior to the first mile marker when Stevens strayed slightly off the trail for a moment.
Bad timing for Stevens, as his shoulder collided with a tree.
“To be honest, I didn’t really feel anything at the time,” he said. “The adrenaline was flowing, and I was just kind of focused on the race,” he said. “It happened on a turn and I didn’t notice [the tree] was in front of me until it was too late. I stumbled a little bit, but it wasn’t enough to cause too big of a setback. After I stumbled, I caught right back up to the lead pack.”
Stevens eventually passed Munford and the other lead runners at around the two-mile mark. Stevens cruised the rest of the way, while Frank wound up in sixth place. Stevens’ first-place time of 16:23.88, which was both a season and career PR, was almost seven seconds faster than runner-up Ty Postle of Bayside Academy, who clocked in at 16:29.10.
“Dakota kept with me for the first mile and a half, and then I started pulling away for him during the little hills in the second mile,” said Stevens. “By the third mile mark I was too scared to look back to see if anyone was close to me, but it turned out that I had a pretty good lead by the end.”
Leaving Frank in his dust was especially sweet for Stevens, as he finished second to Frank by seven seconds at the sectional meet on October 28. Stevens believes it was the first time he bested Frank in cross country competition.
“It felt great to do that,” Stevens said. “Throughout the season, most of the races we ran against each other, he beat me by five or six-second margins almost every time. I knew that my best time of the season was better than his, but every race I had with him this year, it seemed like he had a little more grit. So at state, I was like, ‘I can’t lose now.’ Dakota is a really good runner, so I know that I definitely beat the best to win today.”
Saturday’s state championship was the second this year for Stevens. He won the Class 4A 3200-meter run at the Class 4A state track and field meet in early May in Gulf Shores. It was Stevens’ fourth win of the cross country season.
“This one is a little more special, because at the [state track and field meet], I was really only looking to PR and wasn’t thinking that I was going to win,” he said. “I just was able to get a pretty good kick on the last lap and catch [Anniston’s Christian Myles] at the finish line (10:02.85 to 10:02.95). But today I really wanted to win it. I just pushed as hard as I could.”
Stevens’ first-place performance helped Ashville finish third overall. The Bulldogs’ average time of 17:23.04 was four seconds behind second-place American Christian and eight shy of state champion Bayside Academy. Wyatt Knight helped Ashville’ cause with an eighth-place time of 16:55.44, while Ashton Vann came in 17th at 17:21.18. Clayton Knight finished just outside the top 25 with a time of 17:38.06.
“It was the same game plan for Joe [as the 3200-meter championship in track], just a different location and a different set of miles,” said Ashville cross country coach Michele Rogers. “I’m very proud of him for his performance and the hard work and effort he’s put in to accomplish this goal. The boys as a team finished the they were seeded and we had several PRs, so I’m very happy with how we ran today.”
Stevens, who also broke the Ashville school 5K record set by teammate Wyatt Knight last season, was pleased that Ashville finished as the top public school in the state.
“That’s such an awesome feeling,” he said. “I’m so happy about that, because you never know how a public school will do at a meet like this. There were a lot of good public school runners here today.”
Stevens intends to make it a long-distance trifecta this season by winning the indoor season 3200-meter run in early February.
“I’m ready to go out there and do it,” he said. “Three for three would be pretty cool.”