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CHAMPIONS OF STANLY: Knights cross country earns school’s first team state titles

The Gray Stone Day School athletic program started back in the 2003-04 academic season when the school was still within the Harris Science Building on the Pfeiffer University Campus.

Clad in maroon and gray, the Knights slowly went about the process of building the reputation of an athletic program from the ground up. Gray Stone got close to its first state championship in men’s tennis in 2007 with Fabrice Kalmbacher finishing as the 1A singles runner-up.

Gray Stone’s cross-country program was well into its development at that point in a physically-demanding sport requiring athletes to run a 5K race at least once a week up and down hills and rough terrain during the regular season and playoffs.

Eventually, the first team state championship for Gray Stone in any sport came in 2009 when the men’s side of the cross-country program won the 1A title. The program continued to make history for the school six years later when the cross-country team delivered the school’s first women’s team title.

2009

The genesis of the school’s first state championship started in 2005 when Rick Perry took over as the team’s head coach. In just the school’s fourth year overall competing in the sport, Perry and the Knights finished 11th in the state. That season, Perry said, the team was “just trying to get some recognition at that point” while just trying to get kids to compete in the sport.

Selling the sport of cross-country, he explained, is a tough sell to young athletes.

“If you do it right, it’s very uncomfortable and it hurts,” he said. “It’s the toughest thing to recruit freshmen to come out and do this.”

The sport requires discipline and maintaining a running schedule during the off-season and summer, where Perry said the team was trying to get runners into condition so they could run well. However, a problem continued to persist in the development of those runners early on. Many of them ran right up to the point of being uncomfortable, but would then back off.

“The whole trick is to run to that point and run right through it. That’s when the magic starts to happen,” Perry said.

Cross-country, he said, is truly “a game of inches.”

“It often comes down to one or two positions to win a meet,” he said.

Unlike some coaches, Perry said he did not have meetings with his teams after meets where everyone could be emotional, but instead chose to have what the kids called the “what if?” meeting. In those meetings, the coach said, he would illustrate to the team how if an individual finished just one place above where they had finished, the team’s overall outcome could drastically change.

“I got everyone thinking they could have done that,” Perry said about improving overall.

Earning fourth place at regional and 11th in the state, Perry said, “was like we had won the world.”

In those days, he added, the Knights did not have enough women’s runners to field a team, which he contrasted to today’s team which fields up to 100 competitors on both teams.

The inspiration Gray Stone garnered from that season carried forward into 2006, when the Knights men’s squad finished in third overall at state.

That elusive state title stayed just out of the team’s reach the next two seasons as the Knights finished runner-up to East Wilkes in 2007 and Hayesville in 2008.

Entering 2009, expectations for the team were tough, Perry said, adding “we knew we had a good team. These guys bought into it.”

Kaleb Medlin, who finished second in the state in 2008 for the Knights, returned for the 2009 season with a mission, because, according to Perry, “when he finished second, it crushed him.”

Medlin was All-State along with Dalton Wally, both of whom would play a huge role in 2009.

Wally said losing to Hayesville provided emotional motivation for the team, but not in the usual way finishing as a state runner-up would. The Jackets dedicated their performance that day to the team’s former coach, Buck Carney, who had unexpectedly died during the season.

“That was huge motivation for that team…next year came around, no matter what, it’s got to be this time,” Wally said about seeing how motivated the Jackets were and what the team’s expectations were moving froward.

“(We) began [the] season starting to really visualize and know where you think we might be able to do it,” he said. “We were already imagining myself on the stage. That was a big part of that season as a whole, developing that mental image. You can’t do it physically if any part of that mental game has any doubts.”

Cross-country is a sport where the slowest of a team’s top-five finishers dictates how the team will finish, which became a focus for the team, Perry said.

“If you can get your top five runners to finish in the top 25, it’s hard not to win a state title,” Perry said.

The march to a state championship for Gray Stone in 2009 did not go according to plan right out of the gate, however. The Knights ran at the Providence Invitational at Alpine Park in the first meet of the season, taking on a number of bigger 3A and 4A schools. But it was a fellow 1A charter school, Bishop McGuinness, who beat the Knights on that day.

“I was upset we didn’t do better. We talked about it at a ’what-if?’ meeting and we never lost a meet after that,” Perry said.

The win streak included wins in conference meets and besting bigger schools at the Cannon Invitational.

“We wanted it known it didn’t matter what size school (we ran against), we had ability. We had to build that culture at Gray Stone,” Perry said.

The “what-if?” meetings, Wally said, showed Perry was a “phenomenal coach” whom “had the ability to understand who each of his runners were and find ways to communicate that each (of us) would respond to.”

Those meetings, Wally added, also showed Perry “had the utmost confidence in our abilities. It was not like we had one or two superstars and he would focus on them…each person was equally a superstar and an equal contributor.”

However, Gray Stone, along with other Stanly teams, had an advantage over other teams who ran primarily on flat cross-country tracks: Chuck Morehead Park. The course, designed by Perry and Peter Asciutto, “was designed to be tough.”

He added some coaches “felt I was being sadistic” in designing a course with a number of elevation changes, twists and turns. He said many runners posted times which averaged around 10 percent slower than other tracks because of the extra challenges.

“(Chuck Morehead) was always what made us tough,” Perry said.

Wally said in his sophomore year with the Knights in 2006, the course was reconfigured to add a second trip around the toughest part of the course, the back hills.

“Coach Perry was excited about this…this just goes to show his sense of humor. He told us, ’We get to do this twice,’ running the hills,” Wally added.

Along with the rigors of running at Chuck Morehead Park, Wally added Perry instilled toughness in the team with just a dark pair of sunglasses he always wore. He and his teammates often joked about those glasses through which you could not see the coach’s eyes.

“We joked that he had X-ray glasses; he can see you slacking off and is looking at you with disapproval. It was punishing, but we ate it up like candy,” Wally said.

That toughness translated into the state championship at the end of dominating the 2009 season, including winning the 1A regional by 14 points over Lake Norman Charter and 28 points ahead of Bishop McGuiness.

Because individual runners compete at the state championship meet along with teams competing for a state title, getting those runners toward the top of the leader board becomes more important.

Such was the case in 2009 for Gray Stone. Wally actually finished in third-place behind Mount Airy’s Matus Kriska and South Stanly’s Sean Kluttz. Because both were running as individuals, Wally earned the coveted first team spot, meaning (in a sport where low score wins) he earned one point for the team.

The Knights ended up earning 65 points, besting Hayesville by seven for the championship at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons. Gray Stone earned team points of 1, 8, 11, 14 and 31, while the Jackets finished 3, 10, 16, 20 and 23. Medlin was second for Gray Stone, followed by Harrison Latimer, Mygel Bergstresser, Harrison Latimer and Eldon Zacek. Needing to average 17:30 as a team to challenge for the title, the Knights’ top five averaged 17:36 to win.

Perry said the 2009 men’s cross-country team members were close.

The runners “trusted me and believed if I said do this, it would happen. They bought into it,” he said.

Every year, the team would write a word on their wrists to use as inspiration during the rigors of running at the state meet, like “depth.”

The choice for 2009’s words was inspired, Perry said. While the team had a meeting at the hotel before the state meet, the group was trying to figure out what word to use this time. Perry said because of how close the team was, the phrase which came to mind was “now.” He wrote that down on what proved to be a rather thin piece of paper. When the coach flipped it over, the palindromic word was exactly what the Knights wanted to be able to say they had done in the future when looking back: “won.”

Later in the school season, the team and coaches were presented championship rings in front of an assembly of the entire school, which Wally said “spoke a lot to how our school embraced us.”

Although he is more into cycling now as an adult, Wally said running is still a part of his life. Being more of a social runner was the big appeal of running cross country as an extrovert, he explained, but even now he still goes out for a run now and then.

“(Running) is something I can still go out and do…I can run and think back about fond memories of high school and college,” Wally said.

2015

Before winning the 2009 title, Perry said people asked who is Gray Stone, but now everyone expects the Knights to be good.

The 2015 Gray Stone women’s state championship cross country team, from left, front row: Cassie Bebout, Elisabeth Harper, Maggie Foley; back row: Laurie Fogleman, Kelsey Kiser, Madison Hale and Annie Habeeb. (Contributed)

“All of those guys are so important; they all bought into it.”

When Perry decided to not be the cross-country coach for the Knights, athletic director Jeff Morris asked the coach if there was someone he knew who could replace him.

“I told (Morris) I didn’t know, but if I had to handpick a replacement, it would be Michael Furr. He has the class and the work ethic,” Perry said.

Having created a strong program with high expectations with the 2009 state title, Furr said his hope was to continue that.

“My philosophy of coaching was simple: work hard and care about your kids, and they will respond in special ways,” Furr said. “I always told the kids, ‘Do things the right way for the right reasons and the winning will take care of itself.’ ”

Heading into the 2015 season, Furr said he had high expectations for the women’s team because he believes “if you have a top-tier program, that must always be the expectations.”

What the team really needed, though, was one “X-factor,” someone “who exceeded expectations from the year before or a new person that was not added into the equation.”

In the case of 2015, two of those new additions included Maggie Foley, who transferred to Gray Stone, along with Cassie Bebout coming out for the team. Furr also said a strong freshman class came in, and combining them with returners like Kelsey Kiser, Annie Habeeb and Laurie Fogleman, he knew the team would be good.

“Running brings people together like no other sport can,” Bebout said. “We all became really fast friends, cracking jokes on runs and pushing each other in workouts. We celebrated with each other and stood by those who were injured or sick. It was the most fun I have ever had in high school sports without a doubt.”

Expectations were high for the season, Habeeb said.

“We had expectations, we knew we could be great,” she said. “Coach Furr believed in us and pushed us.”

She added the team had made it to regionals and states but “never had a trophy to show for it.” Habeeb credited Furr for his practices, saying “there was more science behind it then I realized.”

The team dominated throughout the regular season, including Uwharrie Athletic Conference meets. At the UAC meet at Richfield Park, Gray Stone took the top seven spots, with Bebout finishing first.

The season was not without its own challenges, however. Bebout suffered a leg injury early in the season and Kiser had an iron problem, which according to Furr usually spells the end of a season for a competitive runner.

Bebout worked back into the lineup for Gray Stone, including a fifth-place finish at regional where the Knights posted five of the top seven finishes. Foley was the individual regional champion in first-place, while Bebout finished fifth.

Furr said Kiser’s 19th-place finish at regionals was a turning point for the team.

“I let her run because it was her senior year and she was close to back to top-seven times,” he said. “She ran out her heart that day…I have never calculated what we would have finished without her run that day, but one of our other runners had an off-day. (Kiser’s) guts and leadership with that run had me believing we were ready.”

Conditions for the state final at the Ivey Redmon Complex in Kernersville were less then ideal, however. Furr described the cross-country course as a “rainy mess.”

Despite the added challenge of rain, however, Furr said he knew “we had tough ladies; they had proven that all season long. We never had a lot of fussing and bickering.”

Gray Stone won the championship by 17 points over Bishop McGuinness and by 46 points over defending state champions Community School of Davidson. Foley again led the team, finishing 12th overall.

The title at the end went down to the wire as Madison Hale’s 33rd-place finish, giving the Knights 23 team points, put Gray Stone at 71 for the championship.

Regarding the season, Bebout said the team “trained hard over the summer building up base mileage.”

“We had several injuries and illnesses along the way, but we pushed through with cross-training and high quality workouts,” she said. “Team morale was always high and Coach Furr was amazing at giving us race strategies — his calmness and confidence helped keep the rest of us calm, too.”

Furr said despite his desire to say that coaching the team to a state title changed him in some way, it did not. Having previously won a state championship as a wrestler with Albemarle in 1991 as well as being an assistant and head coach on state title teams, the successes were great “but the rings just collect dust these days.”

What’s more important from that time than championship glory are the relationships he formed with the athletes and the way he affected their lives.

“I still have lots of kids who come see me or call me to check in,” he said. “That’s the real value in coaching. My hope is if you asked any of the kids whom I coached over the years what they remember about me, it would be I taught them something they could take with them for the rest of their lives and that they knew I cared about them.”

Competing at the Next Level

Bebout said her time running cross country at high school led her to walk-on to the cross-country team at Auburn University “which was beyond incredible.”

But even beyond competition, she said, her time running for the Knights fostered a life-long love of running, in addition to showing the power of hard work.

“We were an underdog team with a lot of new people, including me,” she said. “I had only been running for about three months by the time the season started and one of those months I spent injured. But we overcame the odds because we worked every day and stayed focused.”

Habeeb, a three-sport standout at Gray Stone including women’s soccer and basketball, said she did not like cross-country the first time she tried it. However, after training with another Knight standout, Caroline McLeod, cross-country truly impacted her life.

“Without cross-country, I wouldn’t be close to the athlete I am today,” Habeeb said.

She is now a junior on the Flagler College women’s soccer team.

Running cross country and participating in high school sports, Bebout said, “truly shaped who I am and my path in life.”

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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