E.A. Sports Today

Cub into a Lion

Decorated Alexandria runner Abby Nunnelly signs with North Alabama

Alexandria senior Abby Nunnelly listens as Valley Cubs cross country coach Phillip Hartsfield runs through her accomplishments during her signing ceremony Friday.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

Abby Nunnelly has spent more than half her life racing the clock. She starting running at age 8, ran past her future high school coach a few years later and ran right into a Division I cross country scholarship.

The Alexandria senior, a three-time Calhoun County champion and six-time all-state runner, achieved the goal she set out for from her first mile Friday when she signed to run for the University of North Alabama.

Alexandria cross country standout Abby Nunnelly (R) spends time before signing with North Alabama with her uncle Wayne Barger of Auburn, whose triathlon exploits inspired her to get into running.

“I’m so excited to finally be able to fulfill my childhood dream,” Nunnelly said. “I started running when I was 8 years old and I’ve always wanted to run in college. I’m so blessed that I have this ability and I can be able to run for a college, because it’s not common for people to do that.”

It seemed a natural course for her, though.

Nunnelly was drawn into running at age 8 after hearing of her uncle Wayne Barger’s exploits as a tri-athlete. The problem was she didn’t like swimming and wasn’t a fast biker, so running it was going to be – and all it ever was going to be.

They ran together in a 5K in Auburn that summer – she still has the medal – and a few months later she ran in Lincoln where her moxie caught the eye of Phillip Hartsfield who would later become her high school coach.

Once Nunnelly got to high school she won nearly half the cross country races she entered and 49 times total in her cross-country and track career. North Alabama doesn’t have a sponsored track team, but she’ll be able to compete there unattached.

“She told me I could do this, you’ve got to find me a race I can do,” said Barger, who made the drive from Auburn to attend the signing ceremony. “She had the ability and fire to do it since Day One and she’s just been lucky to be in a position because of the support around her and desire to go out and do it. She has worked her butt off. If I did anything it was just to show her this opportunity was out there. She’s the one who did it all.”

“Her work ethic has always been good,” Hartsfield said. “Her abilities have just gotten better. She always had the ability to run, but her toughness has just gotten better as she’s gone on. They’re getting a jewel … the whole package.”

A few years after Hartsfield first noticed that little pony-tailed blonde girl in the Lincoln 5K Nunnelly passed him in that race and that really got his attention.

“She just flat out beat me,” he recalled. “It made me feel old. It made me feel unequipped to do that job.”

It brought out the old saying if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Hartsfield had been trying to get an Alexandria cross-country program off the starting line for years and told Nunnelly, who was running at Ohatchee at the time, if he ever got the program approved he wanted her to run for him.

Hartsfield got the team and Nunnelly, whose mother works as an aide at the school, made the move. The rest is history.

She burst on the scene by winning the Calhoun County championship as a seventh grader at Ohatchee. The next year, in Alexandria togs, she finished second in the state. She has never finished out of the top 10 at State.

She was seventh there in the final race of her high school career last week.

“Everyone’s was saying are you sad that it’s over,” she said. “I kept reminding them it’s not over for me. I still have track season, but I’ll have four more years to go of doing the sport I love the most. I’m very excited for that. There is no sadness.”

Here’s a quick look at the Nunnelly File:

Cross Country
* Won 25 races of 54 entered
* Three-time Calhoun County champion (2013, 2017, 2018), two-time runner-up
* Three-time section champion, three-time runner-up
* 2014 Class 5A state runnerup
* Six-time all-state (all top 10 finishes)

• Won 24 events
• Three-time Calhoun County champion, three-time runner-up
• Four-time sectional champion, two-time runner-up
• Third-place, fifth-place finishes in state 3200
• Eight-place twice in state 1600

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