The cross country season got off to a bad start for the Ardrey Kell girls' team. Two members from last year's team, which finished fourth in the state and had no seniors in the top seven, decided they weren't coming back to the team.
"The beginning of the summer we were falling apart," said senior Abby Brooks, 17. "It was just really stressful."
Since the summer, the team has pulled together. The Knights won the Wendy's Invitational at McAlpine Greenway in September and the 4 Runners Only Cross Country Carnival in Kernersville Oct. 8 and are the favorites as they enter the Southwestern 4A and regional races.
"Not that I would ever doubt these girls or put anything past them, but I will say ... it has turned out better than expected," said head coach Brian Zelk.
Ardrey Kell had success early in the season, winning their first meet, the Providence Invitational, by placing three runners in the top 10. Zelk said the team knew it still had a lot of work to do, but it changed the tone of the season.
"It felt good to know that we were still up there after all the trouble we had at the beginning of the summer," said junior Samantha Teague, 16, who finished sixth in the race. Ardrey Kell's top five runners all ran the 5K course in less than 20 minutes, something that took most of last year to achieve.
The team is led by senior captains Brooks and Kaitlyn Kramer and junior captain Teague. Sydney Foreman, a sophomore, usually finishes first or second on the team with Kramer. Zelk said she might be one of the best runners in the state.
"I think this is one of the most mentally tough runners around the state," he said. "She doesn't hit a wall; she runs past a wall."
The top seven runners are rounded out by Sydney Teague, Samantha's twin sister, Aleisha Murrell and Mary Klemons.
Losing the two runners from last year, Caitlin Bucksbaum (18th at last year's state meet) and Maraih Reilly, may have put just the right amount of pressure on this year's team.
"A lot of times when there's a lot more people to cover you, you can be a little more laid back and relaxed," said Zelk. "They knew that they were going to have to step up."
The Knights were disappointed in their third place finish at the Seahawk Invitational at UNC Wilmington Sept. 10, finishing behind state power Green Hope and Carrboro. They bounced back the next week at Lake Norman, finishing first ahead of conference rival Providence High. Kramer finished first and sophomore Sydney Foreman finished second in the meet.
The team's biggest win of the season came at the Wendy's Invitational Oct. 1 when the Knights beat 27 other teams to win one of the biggest races in the state. Foreman finished second in the race and Kramer finished fifth.
"When I finished I was happy with my time but then when I heard how everyone else did that made it so much better," said Kramer, 17.
Ardrey Kell notched another win Oct. 8 at the 4 Runners Only Cross Country Invitational in Kernersville, the same course that hosts the state meet. It was a good sign for a team whose goal is to better their fourth place finish last year.
Placing high at the state meet "would be really big for us because that's one of our really high goals and that's what we've been training for all season," said Foreman, 16.
Zelk has coached boys' cross country and track since the school opened and started coaching the girls' teams two years ago. His first year, they qualified for the state meet for the first time, finishing 11th. Last year, the Knights won the conference for the first time and won the Western Regional race.
When Zelk took over the team, he had a simple philosophy: "Fear no one," especially conference rivals Providence and Myers Park, who have had traditionally strong programs.
The runners said this team has a stronger bond than past teams. They went to a camp together in Asheville over the summer and run together almost every day. Zelk said the team has great chemistry.
"They're fun, they're caring, they all have those great personalities that you want in a kid," said Zelk. "But on top of that, when it comes to being an athlete, these girls are fiercely competitive."
The Ardrey Kell runners say they have a lot more work to do to get ready for the conference (Oct. 20), regional (Oct. 29) and state (Nov. 5) meets. But after the win at Wendy's Invitational, they feel much better about this team then they did at the beginning of the season.
"After what we did on Saturday (Wendy's Invitational), I wouldn't say that now we think we could win state, but I would say that it opened our eyes more to how we would be able to perform once we got there," said Samantha Teague.