Since the birth of the Cannon County High School cross-country team a few seasons ago, it has enjoyed a lot of success in a short time, thanks in part to the hard work of the runners and the coaching by Marc Larson and Brian Elrod.
Heading into 2013, Elrod wanted to use his experience from coaching the high schoolers and running thousands of miles in different races during his long career to start a middle school cross country here in the area. However, he had to bring athletes from five separate schools and mesh them into a cohesive team to challenge some of the more established programs in the Midstate.
"I wanted to train the middle school kids in the same system that Marc (Larson) did with the high school," Elrod said before practice last week. "I run the same drills he would run and vice versa."
So, one day Elrod went to each of the schools here in Cannon County trying to sell prospective athletes on the benefits of running for the new cross-country team. He also wanted to see where they fit within the program.
"I wanted to teach the children, because we never had this when I was in school," Elrod said. "That was the big pull for me to train children in something I love to do."
So far it is working, as in the short time of the program, the Junior Lions, and Lionettes have competed with and earned results against the more established competition like in neighbor Rutherford County. The boys' team qualified for state in 2014 as a JV team, while the girls have also qualified for state also during the past couple of seasons.
The success of the program has also led to other border counties starting their own programs like DeKalb, Coffee and Warren in the last couple of seasons.
"I really believe we opened the door, and they took note," Elrod said. "If Cannon can do it as small as they are, they thought 'Why Not?'"
There is not a lot of differences between the high school and middle school meets except the high school races are 3. 1 miles long, while the middle school athletes meets are two miles long. Besides the length of it, the actual courses they run are pretty much the same one as the older racers
This past offseason, 125 middle school students signed up to run, and now it is down to 18 as the Junior Lions and Lionettes are in the heart of their 2015 schedule, including a meet at Murfreesboro Riverdale this past weekend.
This year's team is led by the coach's daughter, Zettie, who is in 7th grade, and eighth grader Duncan Cook for the boys'. Other team members include Hannah Higgins, Madison Gaither, Amanda Blanco, Rudy DearMond, Lauren Knox, Lexie Deese, Autumn Young, Grace Campbell, Angela Blanco and Sydney Wisdom, Tyler Southworth, Matthew Elmy, Colin Reed, Tristan Davis, Ian DearMond and James Vassar.
"I just like running, and I wanted to get a scholarship for it and beat my dad's records," Zettie said about the reason why she joined the team.
Cook added, "I love to run, and I wanted to run since I was 13. I like to win a lot."
The Junior Lions and Lionettes opened up the 2015 regular season at the Macon County Invitational on Aug. 22 with Elrod finishing 7th overall, and Cook finishing 19th to lead their respective teams on a wet and muddy course and against a field of over 300 runners from 16 schools. The Lionettes finished 5th overall while the Lions were 10th in the final team standings.
Each team hopes to continue their success this season, and once again qualify for the state meet later this fall. However, Elrod and Cook knows it is going to take a lot of hard work to get back there.
"We all need to hit our splits," Zettie Elrod said. "We really need to train on our off time, so we can get faster.
Cook added, "We all need to get faster, and we could be a much better team if we work together as one."
The teams practice three times a week, and they also get together during non-practice days to run as a team working to improve their times before the meets.
"It is really fun because we get to hang out with most of them we know," Elrod said about being on the team. "They are really fun to hang out with, and we have a great time before and after the races getting warmed up."
Brian Elrod added, "I love watching them develop, get stronger and become more confident. 80 percent of running is mental. The physical attributes is I can get you fast, and they just got to believe it."
The Junior Lions and Lionettes are back in action Sept. 10 in Bowie Park in Fairview.
You can reach David at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cannoncourier on twitter