BURLESON — Meet by meet, Waxahachie High School is inching closer to the state championship cross country contending teams of the late 90s and early 2000s by beating 6A programs and outpacing 5A competition like Mansfield Legacy and Timberview.
During Saturday's Spartan Invitational at Burleson Centennial High School, the Indians girls and boys teams took another step. They finished third and fourth overall and placed five athletes as the meet's best runners.
Freshman Emma Curry, sophomore Brandon Moore, and senior Brandon Gilliland each broke into the top five of the 5,000-meter meet.
Freshman Alyson Moore and junior Emily Mackel cracked the top 20 and sophomore Brooke Trull, junior Cathryn Bigham, and seniors Rafael Aguilar and Bailee Jennings and sophomore Joshua Kane made it inside the top 50.
"Cathryn, as well as the other runners are working extremely hard this season. They have set their goals, changed their mentality, and they come to work each day with the attitude to improve," said Todd Alexander, the head coach of the girls' varsity team. "The girls now are seeing that we are a contender and the confidence is continuing to build."
While Curry's 19:49 finish broke the school 5K school record for the second time this season and less than a minute behind Burleson Centennial junior and female meet champion Sarah Trammel, Gilliland and Moore finished as the boys' 5,000-meter run champion and runner up.
Gilliland's 16:41.2 and Moore's 16:53.6 were quick enough to outpace 6A Mansfield High's Leighton Fast and Colby Adler, Burleson High's Chris Smith and Burleson Centennial's Nick Newby, the third through fourth place finishers.
The duo was separated from the next Indian to cross the finish line by 27 runners.
Aguilar ran the race in 18:21.27 at No. 29 and edged Dallas Covenant's Max Richter and Seth Mackinnon out of the top 30. Kane, who placed No. 48 out of 105 runners with a 19:04.15, did the same in the top 50.
"Brandon Gilliland and Brandon Moore have been pushing each other," Indian Boys' Coach Edward De La Cruz noted. "I feel like Sam Molina and Rafael Aguilar have been working really hard to close the gap between the top three. I think by district, they will all be really close."
Kane edged Cleburne sophomore Juan Aguilar and Mansfield Legacy senior Gaster Smith. Joshua Manning, the final Indian distance specialist, finished 53rd and ran the 5K in 19:10.
De la Cruz added Kirby Chandler, who finished first in the junior varsity division of the meet, joined Andrew Galbraith, Eric Dyke, Ezekiel Mirabal, Jayce Glenn, Landon Jones, Josh Jones, Elijah Rodriguez and Christopher Espinoza in the junior varsity division.
"I also see Josh Kane and Josh Manning closing the gap on Sam and Rafael — which is great. We love the competition between the No. 4 and No. 7 guys," De La Cruz said. "Kirby ran on JV and he ran pretty well. He has been practicing hard and inching closer and closer to both Brandons."
He noted Dyke, Galbraith, Glenn, Jones and Mirabal, as well as Josh Jammer, Elijah Rodriguez, Justin Smith, Dylan Ihlenfeldt, and Chris Espinosa, as runners that have been working hard and begun making major strides.
Curry wasn't the only female to reach into the top 30 and nearly attain or claim a new personal record.
Moore's No. 15 finish and 21:05 time was only 58 seconds behind her personal record at the Aug. 26 Waxahachie Woodhouse Invitational (20:07.7). Mackel's 21:07.7 at 18th place was only two spots behind and 42 seconds less than her finish at the Woodhouse.
"In our district, it will come down to who has the best No. 4 and No. 5 runners on their team," Alexander said. "Those spots are extremely important when determining the final standings. I’m pleased with the team up to this point, but not satisfied. They are not satisfied either. We still have a lot of work to do to meet our goals."
Bigham improved 29 positions to No. 31 and shaved 41 seconds off her late August race time with a 22:29.7 finish. Trull set her second personal record of the season since running a 15:48.9 finish at the 3,200-meter Birdville Early Bird Invitational.
She ran 5,000 meters in 22:34.5 on Saturday.
Jennings finished 42nd after crossing the finish line in 23:32.2. It was only 45 seconds shy of her time at last year's invitational — 22:47.5.
"What we want to do is to get better each week, and so far this season we have done that. The next few weeks of training and workouts are extremely important in our preparation for the district meet in October," Alexander said. "The success the top three runners are having is definitely a confidence booster. Competition is one of the great motivators. These girls push each other each and every day at practice and the results are starting to pay off. I told the girls before this season started that we are not going to be spectators in this sport any longer. They bought in and as their coach, that’s all I can ask of them."
Both teams will compete in Friday's 45-team, 5,000-meter UIL 4A, 5A, and 6A boys and 3,200-meter UIL 4A girls Cleburne Yellow Jacket Invitational at Buddy Stewart Park.
The meet — beginning with the girls' varsity division — is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Ellis County's Life Waxahachie, Maypearl, Midlothian, Midlothian, Midlothian Heritage and Red Oak High Schools are also on the invitational competition docket.
Marcus S. Marion is the sports editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. He can be reached by phone at (469) 517-1456 or across social media platforms @MarcusSMarion.