Tony Baio never intended to run cross country.
"I didn't make the baseball team my freshman year," the senior explained. "But afterward, all the coaches said I had good speed, and I should go out for track."
So in his sophomore year at North Mecklenburg High, Baio did go out for indoor track, and did well running the mile.
"I've never been much of an endurance runner," admitted Baio. "At the beginning of the track season, I didn't think too much about cross country, but by the end of the season I saw I had a talent, and running became my passion."
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With the new-found confidence and encouragement of his coaches, Baio went out for cross country last season, and is now the Vikings top runner.
"This is only Tony's second year running," explained North Meck cross country coach Lawrence Lawson. "He's really stepped it up a lot, and he still has a lot of growth to do."
When this cross country season started, North Meck was down a few runners. With the opening of the new Hough High, the Vikings lost a few of their top finishers to the Huskies, including sophomore Kevin Harrow and junior Andrew Capets.
"It made a difference in the team makeup, as far as chemistry and work ethic," said Lawson. "With a new school, you win some, lose some."
The Vikings also had a number of runners graduate this past year, but who they didn't lose, have become really critical components.
Mallard Creek and Hough top the I-Meck 4A conference. The Vikings are currently in a fight with Hopewell for fourth place so every finish counts. That has made the emergence of the Vikings top runner, Baio, so important.
"He's progressing," said Lawson. "He works hard and he wants to be better."
Baio may not have initially had the drive, but he really got excited when he broke a five-minute mile last year.
"This past spring I ran a 4:41," the senior said. "That's been my best moment so far."
Baio also may not have his old practice running partners in Harrow and Capets to push him, but he's worked hard to maintain his intensity.
"I knew this year would be a challenge," he said. "I've not been running two full years yet, but I knew I'd have to be first in all of the workouts to be an example for my teammates."
Baio and senior co-captain Sean Zilberdurt work hard to motivate their teammates. Senior Tony Rao was injured last season, but has also stepped it up this year. Senior Robert Jenkins, who is a state-qualifying triple jumper, is running in the top seven for the Vikings this season.
"My seniors are working hard," said Lawson. "I target my runners to peak in the championship season, and that is what they've been doing."
Baio finished in eighth place at the Reedy Creek meet Sept. 22 with a time of 18:45. At the Wendy's Invitational Oct. 2, he came in 60th but with a time of 17:23, earning a personal best, while cutting more than a minute from his season opening times.
"Between pre-conference and the conference meet on Oct. 20, I think he should be able to drop to a sub-17 minute time," said Lawson. "He hasn't run a lot, and he's just getting into his running form. My prediction is he'll make 16:45."
Baio has no prediction for this year, but now he does have positive intentions.
"By the end of the school year, my goal is to get my mile under 4:20," he said. "And to break 17 minutes. I'll be happy if I can do that."