There’s a quiet dynasty being built on good lungs, strong legs, and swift feet at Grace Christian School in Staunton.
On Saturday, the talent of Tripp Franklin’s two middle school and two high school teams was showcased for all to see at the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) state cross country meet at Coyner Springs Park.
Truth be told, Franklin’s kids didn’t walk away with all the hardware, but they had their fair share, capturing the boys middle school and girls high school state championships, while the girls middle school team took second and the boys high school team finished third. There were also five Warrior runners who earned slots on the all-state team, meaning they finished fifth or higher in their race.
Last year the Grace Christian Warriors won three of the four championships, missing out on the boys middle school crown. This year’s boys middle school title now gives the Warriors a complete set of trophies.
Franklin, who coaches all four teams at Grace, also organized and ran the VACA meet on Saturday. He stated he was pleased not only with the efforts of his runners, but with the numbers of other runners, especially the record-breaking count of middle schoolers.
Franklin ran for Wilson Memorial under legendary coach Steve Geiman and then at Division I Davidson. He graduated from Wilson in 1994 and Davidson in 1998, and then headed off to law school. The law remains his profession, but coaching young runners is his passion.
Eight years ago he was approached about coaching cross country at Grace and, although he knew he was over committed time wise, he reluctantly agreed to start up the program. It was one of the best decisions he ever made, he said.
“I just volunteer at Grace, but I can tell you that it is every bit as rewarding as practicing law. When I started the program we had a half dozen kids and now we have 37 runners,” Franklin said, adding that his wife Jean, also a runner, and his own five kids have been a big help, especially with organizing the state meet.
“Cross country kids are just good kids. They are usually high academic achievers and have good character,” he added.
The first two races of the day, the girls and boys middle school races, served as an appetizer to the main course of the high school championships. Six boys teams and four girls teams competed on the deceptively hilly two-mile middle school course.
In the boys middle school race, Grace Christian captured its first-ever state championship with 46 points. Anchoring the win was seventh-grader Jed Derrick, a first-year runner for the Warriors. He earned all-state honors with a fifth place finish in 13:12.7.
Grace’s Sterling Wissler finished seventh in 13:23.5 and teammate Caleb Cashion was eighth in 13:40.6. Ezekiel Fitzgerald finished 11th in 13:45.1 and Aiden Weaber was 17th in 14:23.4. Rounding out the Grace runners were Isaac Ranck, Anderson Weaber, Luke Novotny, Cian Ivers, and Sam Lihos.
Four teams competed in the girls middle school race with Southwest Virginia Academy taking first with 29 points and Grace Christian coming in second with 54 points. Anchoring the runner-up finish was seventh grader Claudia Anne Corbin whose time of 14.52.7 was good enough for second place. Fellow seventh grader Georgia Babish was fourth in 15:35.7.
Grace’s Amelia Rylak was 15th and Rachel Adams was 21st. Sara Young, Evie Hobbs, and Beth Vogan were 23rd, 24th, and 25th.
“I just love running,” Corbin said of her second-place finish. “We’ve trained really hard for this.”
Grace Christian again took home the top trophy in the girls high school race. The high school course was a standard 5K (3.1 miles). The Warriors have won the state title four years out of the last five. The surprise top runner for Grace was eighth grader Kaitlyn Harper who was moved up to varsity after one of the Warriors’ top runners broke her foot last week. Harper’s time of 21:39.8 was good enough for second place and all-state honors.
“I like racing,” the eighth grader said. “I have been running since the sixth grade. I was pretty pleased with my race today. I was definitely not expecting second place.”
Joining Kaitlyn in the victory circle was sixth-place finisher Maddie Harper in 22:57.2 and Jessica Dryer who was seventh in 23:09.7. Senior captain Rebecka Cashion was ninth in 23:54.3. Anna Weaber was 12th, Jenna Fleming was 17th, and Miranda Walters was 23rd.
“You win a race with your fourth and fifth runners,” Franklin said, pointing out that it was team depth that helped his girls capture the high school state title. “Kaitlyn stepped up and filled in and I am super proud of Rebecka who ran a great race to finish her career.”
Senior captain Cashion said that she was excited about her team’s title. “I am very proud of everyone, especially the middle school boys today. They are such a close team and they fought so hard,” she said.
She noted that cross country is an important sport at Grace Christian and that a large number of students are involved. “It is the only sport that has boys and girls teams in both the middle school and high school. We are a very united team,” she added.
Rounding out the day’s competition was the boys high school race, which the Grace Christian boys dominated last year. Graduation left some big holes from that team, however, and the Warriors wound up placing third this year with 73 points, behind Southwest Virginia Academy with 28 points, and Regents School of Charlottesville with 64.
Taking top honors for the Warriors was senior co-captain Aidan Ivers, whose time of 18:50.5, was good for a sixth-place finish. Finishing in eighth place was eighth grader Nate Reid in 19:48. Sam Vogan was 11th, and senior co-captain Sam Banta was 25th. Joseph Lihos and Richard Jones rounded out the Warrior squad finishers.
Ivers, who has been running for Coach Franklin since he was in the sixth grade, had a personal record for the season at the race. Franklin tabbed his senior co-captain as having had a great race.
“I was just happy that we were able to have the meet,” Ivers said, noting that the virus has shortened the season significantly. “Despite the short season and the shortened practice season, our team did a good job this year,” he added.
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