Chris Greer, a stopwatch around his neck, stands in the parking lot in front of the Myrtle High School gym watching his cross country team practice.
As the runners cruise past, he shouts words of encouragement. Moments later, an elementary-aged girl with pencil-thin legs and a pair of huge running shoes jogs by.
“She’s going to be one of my better ones,” Greer said.
Then he smiled.
Running cross country and winning state championships with the “better ones” has become something of a tradition in Northeast Mississippi since 2000.
During the 10-year span, nine area schools have captured 59 of the 102 MHSAA state championships: Tupelo (18), Myrtle (10), Corinth (9), Pontotoc (8), Saltillo (8), Kossuth (2), Oxford (1), East Union (1) and West Union (1).
Just last weekend, at Mississippi College’s Choctaw Trails in Clinton, Northeast Mississippi schools won nine of the 12 championships.
Greer’s Myrtle teams, boys and girls, swept the Class 1A state titles.
“At Myrtle we talk about winning state championships and getting a ring,” Greer said. “Some kids like running, others like running and winning.
“Our teams up here are competitive and hardworking. That’s what cross country is.”
Tupelo’s boys and girls won their ninth consecutive state championships, these two in the newly added 6A classification. The other eight came in 5A.
“I think it says something about our kids,” Golden Wave coach Nathan Hall said. “We do like our running. There’s a rich tradition in Tupelo.”
Tupelo’s program has won 28 cross country state titles.
Pontotoc’s boys and girls raced to 4A titles, giving veteran coach Mike Bain 28 state championships in the sport.
“It’s not a glory sport,” said Bain, who just completed his 32nd season. “Only certain kids are going to do it. I start looking at kids in the sixth grade. You want to get them early, get them to enjoy it.”
Last week’s remaining state championships were won by Saltillo’s girls (5A), Kossuth’s boys (3A) and East Union’s boys (2A).
Bain believes Northeast Mississippi’s success on the trails begins with the coaches and the administration’s support.
“Programs are successful because the coaches have put effort into a program,” he said. “You have to have support from the school. All the programs that are good are being pushed by the school and the coaches.”
Hall says the athletes have been the key to his program’s success.
“We’ve got a good product,” he said, “but we’ve got good kids, too, kids with self-discipline.”
Greer believes the success of his program and others is leading to other potentially-successful programs being formed in the region.
“All the these Northeast Mississippi schools are competitive,” he said. “If one gets good at something, the others say, ‘We could be good at that, too.’
“I think you’re only going to see cross country get bigger and bigger in our area.”
Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal