High school cross country is a sport that rewards the team and highlights the individual. But for Bekah Houston and Isaac Pacheco, it is also a sport that brings about solitary recognition, solitary work habits and solitary goals and accomplishments. For both, though, being part of a team is what makes high school cross country an enjoyable part of the year.
“If you have a bad race, you can say it is your fault if you look at it from an individual perspective,” said Houston, a senior for Dalton this fall. “But as a team, you are supporting each other. You are warming up together, and you train every day all together, and it is a big team dynamic spending all that time together.”
But when the race begins, neither Houston nor Pacheco is on the same level with the rest of their teams. In fact, they are on another plateau altogether.
Houston has consistently been the top female running in the area, finishing fifth overall in the Region 7-4A meet and posting a 24th-place finish at the state meet in Carrollton. She has not been beaten by anyone this year, and along the way, she broke her own personal goal of finishing under 19 minutes in the 5K competitions.
For the second year in a row, North Murray’s Pacheco was a step ahead of the area’s competition. Pacheco, who was second in Region 7-2A last season, moved into the top spot and finished as the individual Region 5-3A champion this year with a time of 16:40. He was first at the Pickens Invitational with a time of 16:51, and he finished 41st overall at the Class 3A state meet.
Houston and Pacheco again earn the top honors as The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Cross Country Runners of the Year. This is the fourth year that both have been named to the team with Houston the Runner of the Year for the third straight season, and Pacheco winning back-to-back top honors for boys runners.
They are joined on the all-area team by Northwest Whitfield twins Brady and Parker Cook, Dalton’s Francisco Perez and Murray County’s Servio Martinez for the boys. For the girls team, Northwest’s Natalie Williams and Shelby Wilson are joined by Murray County’s Nayeli Jacobo and Dalton’s Ashley Parham. All-area honors were selected by The Daily Citizen sports staff with input from area coaches.
Houston ended her cross country career as one of the area’s most decorated runners, and according to coach Karen Galyon, as the accolades accumulated, so did Houston’s leadership skills.
“Leadership, more than anything is what she had excelled at this season,” Galyon said. “She started running junior varsity in the eighth grade because we don’t have a middle school team, and we kind of started saying to her to just do the best you can. As she got stronger and more confident she had a lot more pressure on her.”
But with that pressure came more responsibility to the team as well. While she was already leading the team as a runner, she took on more of a role as the team’s leader in other areas.
“She was really quiet when she first started and let others take the lead, but as she has gotten older, she has gotten to the point where she gives advice to the other runners and encourages them,” Galyon said. “She always makes sure the others are giving their best and doesn’t leave anyone out there.”
The team dynamic is what Houston said she will miss the most. With the Lady Catamounts not making the state meet as a team, Houston was by herself in Carrollton for her final cross country race in high school. Without her teammates, it was a different experience.
“At state, it is a little different if you are there without your team,” she said. “But I got to warm up with Northwest Whitfield’s runners, and I prayed with them before the race and it was a special experience.”
But it wasn’t the performance she wanted. After making previous trips to west Georgia for state, the GHSA altered the course this year.
“I didn’t do as well as I wanted to at state,” she said. “It is a really hilly course, and this year it was really cold. They changed the course and added a few more hills to the course.”
Still, despite her finish, which was 10 places behind her time as a junior, Houston said she met most of her goals.
“I knew I wanted it to be my best season, and I had high expectations with times and places and finishes,” she said. “It definitely added to the pressure. I got to break 19 minutes. I guess I was a little tired this year by the time we got to state.”
Houston’s senior year was a culmination of just one part of what she hopes is a lifetime of running and enjoyment.
“It has been my whole life,” she said. “I plan my life around my running. I plan what I eat or whether I am going to bed early based on when I am running. It is a big part of my life. I do it for fun and stress relief and just to enjoy it.
“I played softball and basketball in middle school, and I was on the swim team,” she said. “I have tried a lot — tennis and golf — but running has just stuck. The feeling when I am running is just great. I am just drawn to running more than anything else. Not much hand-eye coordination is involved, but I guess the runner’s high is there and it is a stress relief. I can do it forever, and it is something I want to do for a long, long time.”
An avid cookie eater before a big race — “Chocolate chip, but only four” — Houston plans to run in college and is seriously considering a scholarship offer from North Georgia. She has also been invited to walk on at the University of Georgia.
Either way, Galyon knows her runner is headed in the right direction.
“She has been really a strong runner for four years, and she just gets better and better,” Galyon said. “She runs all year, and pretty much whatever it takes to get better, she does. She is not satisfied.”
Pacheco wasn’t satisfied with his senior season either. Despite some terrific times, he finished a disappointing 41st in a time of 18:21 at Carrollton. Moving up from Class 2A the previous season, he said his unfamiliarity with the runners in Class 3A hurt him in the race on the hilly course.
“I started off very fast at state, but that was a big mistake,” Pacheco said. “I went off with the wrong pack. But I gave it what I had and I finished the race, but was very tired at the end of it.”
It was the end of the distance season, but he has plenty more competition left in both high school and ahead in college. He plans on attending Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., and says he will leave North Murray pleased, but not satisfied, with his final season.
“I wanted this to be my best year. In some ways it was,” he said. “I definitely ran better times this year, and had a better start. I got sick midway through the year, but I was pretty happy with the way I ran, and I am looking forward to next season.”
It is the future that Pacheco is more excited about. On Saturday, he finished first in the 10-miler in Varnell and has competed in half marathons across the country. He was second overall in the Dalton Half Marathon with a time of 1:14.04, but he bettered that time with a third-place finish (1:12.56) in Baltimore.
“They say you are supposed to do your best your senior year, but I feel like I have gotten better and will get better over the years,” he said. “My training has been continuous, and I am looking at running in the long term. I would really like to run and compete professionally, but I want to do half marathons and full marathons. I feel like I can make a very good anaerobic runner.”
North Murray coach Matt Chambers doesn’t doubt Pacheco.
“He just has what I like to call a young wisdom,” Chambers said. “He sees the end game, and a lot of kids don’t see that. He can see where he can possibly go, and he works so much harder just for the chance to get there. He has dedication, and few can duplicate what he does.”
Like Houston, running isn’t a hobby or an activity for Pacheco. It is his life, and his future.
“I wake up every day and run. I will do it twice a day when we are out of school, and three times during the summer,” he said. “When I am running, I really don’t think of anything. I feel like I am the same person, but you get stronger. I don’t think any differently when I run. Now and then I will do some math, but it is about pace and how to improve my times.”
No doubt, those times for both will get lower and lower — the solitary work and goals getting bigger and stronger and within reach.
Here’s a look at the rest of this year’s all-area lineup:
• Parker Cook, Northwest: If it seems like Cook and his brother Brody were joined at the hip, they were the entire season. Parker was the leader for the Bruins the entire year, and the duo were the only two runners in the area to go under 18 minutes in Carrollton at the state meet. Parker, a senior, finished fourth in the Region 7-4A meet, and the duo seemed to feed off of each other going back and forth all year with their places. At the Big Harry Run at Lakeshore Park, Parker was third overall with Brody first by three seconds. Parker was 23rd overall at the state meet with a time of 17:41. This is the second year Parker Cook has made the all-area team after being named honorable mention as a junior.
• Brody Cook, Northwest: Ditto, almost. Brody was the top finisher at the Big Harry and was fifth at the Region 7-4A meet. At the state meet in Carrollton, Brody was 24th overall right behind his brother in a time of 17:41. This is Brody’s third straight selection to the team, and it continues a strong family tradition as well. Older sister Jordi Cook was named All-Area Runner of the Year as a freshman in 2006. The Cooks were a big reason why Northwest finished 12th at state, three slots ahead of the rival Catamounts.
• Francisco Perez, Dalton: Perez was the best of a three-headed monster of pack racing that Dalton used to qualify for the state meet and post impressive numbers all year. Along with Brandon Pineda and Noel Salaices, Perez led the way at region with a seventh-place finish, while Pineda was eighth, and the pair flipped at state with Perez 46th in 18:22 and Pineda 43rd in 18:20. Perez, a junior, had the best time of the year for Dalton with a 16:41, 13 seconds faster than his teammate. This is the second straight all-area selection for Perez.
• Servio Martinez, Murray County: A junior, Martinez was the true leader of quite a strong pack. The Indians finished second at region and seventh overall at the Class 2A state meet in Carrollton. Martinez had a pair of second-place finishes in meets, with a third and fifth as well. At the region meet, he qualified for state with a sixth-place finish. He was 27th overall at state (18:56), and his season-best time was 17:46. This is Martinez’s second selection to the team after being named honorable mention last year.
• Honorable mention: Coahulla Creek — Junior Villereal, Missael Fraire; Dalton — Brandon Pineda, Noel Salaices; Murray County — Ivan Delgado; Northwest Whitfield — Henson Gibbs.
• Natalie Williams, Northwest: Williams was the second-fastest local runner at the state meet, a mere seven seconds behind Houston. Williams was 26th overall in a time of 21:43. The Lady Bruins finished seventh at the state meet off of the strength of Williams’ performance. Her state meet was her best race of the season after finishing second on the team most of the year behind Shelby Wilson. This is her second straight first-team selection and third year on the team overall.
• Shelby Wilson, Northwest: The senior has been a four-year standout in cross country and track. An honorable mention as a freshman, this is Wilson’s third year on the all-area team, and her senior year was even more impressive than the others. Locally, only Houston was better than Wilson, who posted the area’s third-fastest time at the state meet (21:59). With the exception of the state meet, she was the top finisher for Northwest all season long. She finished third in the Powerade Invitational with a season-best 21:59.
• Ashley Parham, Dalton: A sophomore, Parham was a solid No. 2 behind Houston and even more will be expected from her next season on coach Galyon’s squad. She was the fourth-fastest local runner at the Region 7-4A meet with a time of 22:23, but she didn’t qualify for the state meet. She posted a 23:39 to finish sixth at the Big Harry Run. This is Parham’s first selection to the all-area team.
• Nayeli Jacobo, Murray County: You want to talk about a lone competitor? Jacobo was the only runner for the Lady Indians at the region meet and was three spots shy of making the state meet after finishing seventh in a very competitive Region 7-2A. A senior, she had six top-10 finishes this season. A senior, this is her second year on the all-area team.
• Honorable mention: Coahulla Creek — Bethany Goodwin; Northwest Whitfield — Caroline Duffy, Nancy Williams, Karli Williams. Southeast — Isabel Salinas.
(Video by Matt Hamilton/The Daily Citizen; editing by Devin Golden/The Daily Citizen)