Nick Smith knew it was going to be close.
He thought his team had a slight edge, but in a cross-country race, close can mean the difference between first place and fifth place is a stumble on the rugged 3-mile course. You just never know until the No. 5 man crosses the finish line.
For the West Feliciana Saints, five runners scored in the top 26, including a remarkable four in the top 10, and that was enough to seal the deal as Smith’s squad captured the Class 3A state championship last month at the LHSAA All-State/Sugar Bowl at Northwestern State University. After a number of runner-up finishes over the years, the Saints secured their first state title since 1999.
“It’s been a long 18 years,” said Smith, who has coached the team for 21 years. During that run, he’s had eight state runners-up in cross-country and two in outdoor track. He was a member of the 1980 team that brought home the school’s first cross-country championship.
“It’s a relief when you finally win one after so long,” said Smith. “When you’re always so close, so close, you know you’re doing something successful. You don’t want to question yourself. All of a sudden, it fell into place. It starts to validate things for you.”
The Saints were anchored by senior Chandler Sullivan, who sprinted to the finish line against University High’s Jack Moran. Moran finished first by less than two seconds (16:36.97) ahead of Sullivan (16:39.68). Remarkably, Sullivan had been battling mononucleosis for much of the cross-country season, and his time was well off his best from earlier in the season.
“The mono was a big obstacle, but I used it to motivate me to get through that and to get my goal,” Sullivan said.
Thanks to finishes by Wyatt Barbe (17:02.52) at No. 5, Emery Godke (17:29.57) at No. 9 and Nate Semmes (17:31.65) at No. 10, the Saints had a nearly insurmountable lead. When Justin Rea crossed the line at 26th place in 18:32.53, the champion’s trophy was in hand.
“Those guys this year worked their tails off and hung in there, and that made all the difference,” Smith said. “This team was favored and was supposed to win early in the season, but they had some adversity and overcame it, and they put the work and that made a difference.”
Sullivan is the third of three brothers who ran for Smith during their West Fel careers: Michael Clinton Sullivan just finished his collegiate career running for Milsaps while Taylor Sullivan is concentrating on baseball at Milsaps. A first cousin, Hunter Fudge, is the No. 2 runner at Milsaps after a stellar career with West Feliciana.
“I wish there was another one,” Smith said.
A day after his team won the state championship, in the commons area of West Feliciana High School, a signing ceremony was held for Chandler Sullivan to run at the University of New Orleans next season.
And now, Smith can focus on next year.
“We’ll see who’s the next man up,” said Smith. “We’ve got five guys returning and a good group of eighth-graders, so I’m pretty pleased with the way things are headed.”