E.A. Sports Today

Lady Raiders favored

Pleasant Valley favored to win Class 3A girls cross country title, coach says it’s ‘ours to lose’

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE – At least once a week for the past five months Emma Hood would come home from practice and seek out her mother for a glimpse at the prize that has served as an inspiration for the entire Pleasant Valley cross country team all season.

It’s the ring from the 1997 state cross country championship. Tara Hood – Tara Roper then – was a junior on that team and that ring has been held in safe keeping ever since.

When Emma looks at the Carolina blue stone in the setting, she can’t help thinking of what it would feel like to slip one onto her own hand. If things go right Saturday, she’ll be able to do just that and they’ll have a matching set in the Hood house.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a really, really long time,” Emma said. “She showed it to me the other day and I started wearing it around the house. If I get one it means all the hard work – five months worth – would finally pay off.”

It’s just a matter of delivering now. The Lady Raiders are favored to win the Class 3A girls state title at the Oakville Indian Mounds Park. Even coach Brad Hood, Emma’s dad and Tara’s husband, asserts the 9:10 a.m. race is “ours to lose” when he reviews the times in the virtual meet of the 12 schools involved.

The Lady Raiders are one of the youngest teams in the field. Their No. 1 runner, Trinity Roberts, is a mere seventh grader. Emma is an eighth-grader. Their next five runners include a seventh grader, two ninth-graders, a sophomore and a senior.

And it’s important to list all seven runners even though only first five count in the scoring because one of the keys to PV’s success this year has been its ability to run in a pack. The Lady Raiders score 66 points in the virtual meet without having a runner seeded in the overall top 10, but all five of their counters are in the top 25.

They have a 31-point edge in the virtual score, but Brad Hood expects it to be a lot tighter, especially after learning at least one of the challengers has returned a runner that hasn’t raced since August into their lineup.

But he also notes the Lady Raiders “haven’t run our best race yet,” either.

“We kind of control our own destiny,” he said.

The wolfpack mentality is a direct result of the Lady Raiders’ training regimen. At least once a week they run a pace that allows the rest of the lineup to keep up with the recognized lead three. It has served them well.

“From the first time I saw them run this year I knew they were in for a special ride,” said Ohatchee coach Casey Howell, who has one of the teams tasked with chasing down the Raiders. “They have so much passion for what they do. You can tell they do things the right way and that they run for each other. They push us every day to be a better team.”

Howell’s girls are projected seventh. In the 3A boys race, Pleasant Valley is projected fifth and Ohatchee sixth. In 5A, Alexandria’s girls are projected fourth and its boys ninth. White Plains’ girls qualified as a team in the 4A race.

Individually, Jacksonville’s Rebecca Hearn, Alexandria’s Abby Nunnelly and Lane Trapp and Anniston’s Zebedee Lunsford are expected to have strong races.

Nunnelly and teammate Chloe Brown finished second and ninth, respectively, in last year’s 5A race and Hearn was fifth in the 4A race. Trapp and Lunsford finished in the top 25 in the 5A boys race.

The ’97 state title is the only cross country crown ever won by a Calhoun County team. Tara Hood brought the ring out for the whole team to see the other day and it was the center of attention.

“(Emma) definitely wants one of her own,” Tara said. “It really doesn’t mean that much to you until you earn it, until you’ve worked for it. That ring means everything to me because I knew how hard we busted our tails to get to that point.

“I took the ring to one of the cross country practices and showed it to all the girls to try to motivate them a little more. They were all really wanting one of those rings.”

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