E.A. Sports Today

Running with purpose

Pleasant Valley teams run in state championship with heavy heart

Alexandria's Ronnie Royal (30) congratulates Abby Nunnelly on her second-place finish in the Class 5A girls race. On the cover, Rachel Faucett hits the tape as Pleasant Valley's first runner.

Alexandria’s Ronnie Royal (30) congratulates Abby Nunnelly on her second-place finish in the Class 5A girls race. On the cover, Rachel Faucett hits the tape as Pleasant Valley’s first runner.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

MOULTON – Jacksonville’s Rebecca Hearn wasn’t the only Calhoun County runner with a little extra incentive to run well at Saturday’s high school cross country championships.

Both Pleasant Valley teams at Oakville Indian Mounds Park were motivated to put their best effort to honor the memory of Steven Huddleston, a former classmate and forever friend they lost in a single-car crash Tuesday.

The teams were so devastated by the loss there was some debate whether they would run in the meet; the coaches gave them the option and said they would understand if the runners declined.

The runners met with Huddleston’s family and decided to press on with a very special goal in mind.

“We all wanted to P.R. for Steven,” said Rachel Faucett, the Raiders’ top runner all year and in Saturday’s 3A girls race at 20:57.83. “I just wanted to P.R.”

Most of them did. The Raiders finished fifth in the Class 3A girls race, scoring three runners among the top 30 point-getters, with four of their five counters – and six of the 10 they brought – posting personal-best times. Kiana Simpson, whose brother R.J., a Pleasant Valley football player, was particularly close with Huddleston, beat her previous best time by nearly 30 seconds.

“They have a big heart and they wanted to do it because that’s what Steven wanted them to do,” said coach Rex McAllister, who had known Huddleston since the student enrolled in his fourth-grade class. “They talked to Steven’s parents last night and they said that Steven said they wanted you to be at the race.”

Both programs did what they came here to do and left almost immediately after the boys race to get back in time for their friend’s memorial service. The Raiders usually pitch a tent at their meets, but this time they only unfolded a card table and spread some blankets to mark their territory and expedite their departure.

Coach Brad Hood believed the tragedy affected his boys’ team more, because they had more interaction with Huddleston. Two of their seniors, Bradley Pritchett and Seth Kirk, ran personal bests Saturday.

“I didn’t even know if we’d have a team show up today,” Hood said. “I told them at practice Thursday I understand you’re going through stuff and your heart may not be in it. Don’t feel like you have to come. I’d respect your decision either way. And they were here and not one of them left anything out today.”

ROYAL TREATMENT: Alexandria’s Ronnie Royal may not have finished as high as he’d have hoped, but just being in the race was like a victory to him.

The Valley Cubs senior ran 19:48.23 and finished 81st, but that seemed hardly the point.

“As long as I can do that last sprint at the end, I know I did my best,” he said. “No matter what place I finish, I’ll still have a smile on my face.”

Actually, Royal is somewhat of an accidental harrier. He missed a couple summer workouts for the Valley Cubs basketball team and made up the work by running with the cross-country team. They talked him into sticking around and he actually found that he liked it.

HAVING FAITH: Nathan Bedford was an accidental runner, too, but he was Faith Christian’s best runner Saturday. The senior made a run at the school record with his 19:09.69 and passed three people near the finish line to finish 47th.

“I made a little deal with John Bell,” Bedford said. “I told him I’d play your sport if you play mine. Now, he’s playing soccer and I’m running cross country.

The Lions were making their first appearance at the state meet in five years. Coach Dr. Vic Minish wasn’t sure they would make it, but they qualified as the third team in the section and proclaimed Saturday “a good day for us.” They finished 11th as a team in the Class 1A-2A race.

“Last year we worked so hard and missed it by a man,” Minish said. “This year with all the rookie runners I didn’t think we had it.”

Z-FACTOR: Calhoun County boys champion Zebedee Lunsford of Anniston finished 18th at 17:40.40. It was fourth straight race he’s posted a personal best. His goal next year, he said, was to set the course record in the county meet.

RUNNING ON EMPTY: The Ohatchee and Pleasant Valley boys were expected to continue the battle they raged at the County Meet, only it didn’t materialize. It turned out to be a matter who would outpoint the other for the better middle-of-the-pack finish. They finished ninth and eighth, respectively.

PV was impacted by the death of former classmate Steve Huddleston; Ohatchee just may have been spent.

“I had us peaked at the wrong time,” Ohatchee coach Casey Howell said. The Indians put a lot of energy into winning the County Meet and pulled it off.

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