THE WOODLANDS — The course was muddy. The air was dense with humidity. The competition was elite. It was all business as usual at the annual Friday Night Lights cross country meet at the Bear Branch Sports Fields.
The Woodlands girls coach Noel Hansen was working away at the conclusion of the event, stacking eight-foot metal barricades onto a tailor. There is always a lot of labor that goes into the meet — before, during and after. It requires the help of numerous volunteers, parents and coaches, all dedicated to the cause.
“It’s a great event,” Hansen said as he took a quick break from his post-race cleanup duties. “I really like the event, and we’ve had a tremendous amount of support from our parents and the park, obviously — the township is always awesome. I’m just really happy that we get to host this meet.”
Hansen’s team was the top finisher among local schools in the girls varsity race, taking 11th place overall with a score of 320. College Park (367) was close behind at 14th, and John Cooper (502) and Magnolia West (541) rounded out the teams from Montgomery County. Southlake Carroll (62), Flower Mound (69) and Coppell (156) took the top three spots.
“The funny thing about this meet is, the last three or four years, the competition has gotten really, really good,” Hansen said. “The Dallas schools came down, the Austin schools came over, and it looked to me like they all ran really well.”
The Lady Highlanders were led by sophomore Natasja Beijen, who finished 49th with a time of 12 minutes, 58.70 seconds on the two-mile course. She was followed by fellow sophomores Brooke Forbes (13:08.20) and Lauren Nguyen (13:23.20), junior Kaitlin Laner (13:27.40) and senior Bella Edwards (13:29.40).
“We’re fairly young, but they have a great attitude, and they’re working hard,” Hansen said of his team. “ … We’re just going to have to continue to get better from here, and we’ve said that all along. Every week, we can’t be disappointed in what we do — just be positive and work to get better, and I think this group will. I’m really pleased with how we’re training, so that’s usually a good sign.”
The Woodlands boys were also the top local team in their race, taking fifth in the final standings with a score of 141. That trailed only Flower Mound (43), Southlake Carroll (76), Cedar Park (85) and Coppell (129).
The Highlanders, who are aiming for a fifth consecutive state championship this fall, were resting their top eight runners for this particular meet.
“The meet is a circus, but it’s a great concept that people are obviously attracted to,” The Woodlands coach Juris Green said. “It attracts a big crowd, and when you have big crowds, you get competitive racing.
“I thought they all competed really well. I told them yesterday, today is not about team results — it’s about you kind of finding yourself and that aggression, find some positives and negatives within the race. Then you work on those negatives and praise yourself for those positives.”
The Highlanders were led by junior Chance Gibson, who finished 15th with a time of 13 minutes, 14.90 seconds on the four-kilometer course. He was followed by junior Caden Cymbala (13:26.50), senior Barrett Saims (13:27.00), sophomore Kyle Easton (13:32.70) and senior Nicholas Berta (13:34.10).
The Woodlands’ top varsity lineup will see its first action in short order, and those runners are determined to bring some hardware back from Round Rock.
“Those guys are just chomping [at the bit], but they’ve got another two weeks before they’re going to put the spikes on,” Green said. “They’ve got things they want to prove, and that goes not only into the state meet, but beyond. We’re making very deliberate steps in that direction. If it happens, great. If not, we’re going to know we did everything we could to make it happen.”