Providence Day cross country runner Ben Huffman won the CISAA conference championship meet at McAlpine Greenway by more than 30 seconds. He's just a sophomore.
Nick Linder finished fifth and Jack Paddison finished sixth at the conference meet. They are freshman.
The Providence Day boys' cross country team has just one senior in its top seven runners, but that hasn't stopped the Chargers from winning an 12th-straight team conference championship and having a chance at a second-straight state championship.
"This is quite possibly the best team we've ever had," said Providence Day coach Ben Hovis, who has led the team since 2002. "Thinking that it's the best team we've ever had and knowing how young they are, I mean, who knows ... the sky's the limit. Groups like this don't come around very often."
Huffman, 15, was on the state championship team last year and finished 14th. After putting in a lot of work during the spring track season, Huffman broke out in his first meet this season, running a personal best of 16:17 and finishing sixth in the WNC Cross Country Carnival in Hendersonville.
"Ben had a great track season last year, so going into cross country we were just hoping the success would continue," said Hovis.
Huffman continued to improve, finishing with a time of 15:45 at the Adidas Cross Country Challenge in Cary Sept. 17, just 10 seconds off the school record of 15:35 set by now assistant coach John Compton. Going into the state meet Oct. 28 at McAlpine Greenway, Huffman was the No. 1 sophomore in the state, public or private school, based on time.
Paddison, 14, and Linder, 15, are the No. 3 and No. 4 freshmen in the state, respectively, and are separated by less than a second, both running a 16:31 at the United Way Invitational in Newton Oct. 12.
Linder ran in middle school at Providence Day and Hovis expected him to contribute this year. Linder set the Providence Day school record for freshmen at McAlpine during a conference meet earlier this month with a time of 16:34.
Paddison was a surprise.
"Jack has never run in his life," said Hovis. "He's just a competitor."
Paddison used to be a year-round swimmer but quit last year. He picked up cross country as a way to stay in shape. In his first meet, he ran 18:07. Since then he's cut his time down to 17:04 in the conference meet.
All three say that the lone senior in the top eight runners, Reed Payne, who finished third at the conference meet, has helped them succeed this year.
"I think everybody always looks up to Reed," said Paddison.
"He really knows how to race," said Linder. "Pacing off him during races really helps."
Sophomore Evan Gray (ninth at conference meet), junior Patrick Shearer (11th) and sophomore Garrett Lunking (12th) round out the top seven runners for the Chargers. Junior Eric Wineteer (14th) is the alternate for the state meet.
Hovis said Payne has pushed the team and led the younger runners well this year.
"Reed is a very consistent guy in workouts and races and as a freshman you're not always consistent," he said. "For them to be able to use Reed as a gauge all the time is huge."
Providence Day is the top ranked team in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association boys coaches poll and is ranked as the No. 8 team in the state regardless of class by NC Runners. The Chargers will be going for their fifth state championship in seven years this week.
"It would be incredible to be able to experience that my first year," said Paddison. "I think if we win this year, it gives us a goal to win states until we're seniors."
While the team's focus right now is to win another title, it's hard not to look ahead at what this team could be in the future.
"It's really exciting looking forward to it," said Huffman. "We have no idea what our potential could be. If we win conference with two sophomores, two freshmen and a senior, what can we do when I'm a senior and they're juniors? I can't wait."