While northeast Georgia has claimed its share of fall sports championships in football and softball, there is no doubt that the area's cross country programs annually produce some of the top talent in the state.
This year is certainly no different, and in just a couple of weeks the area's top runners will take aim at yet more state glory in Carrollton.
Yet before they can toe the line at state, the area's elite must first progress through the gauntlet of region championship meets, beginning today throughout northeast Georgia.
Regions 8-AA and 8-AAAA will each get things going on Wednesday with league finales in Gainesville and Flowery Branch, respectively, while 7-AAA and Area 2-A private/Area 4-A public will crown its champs on Thursday. Region 8-AAAAA will round things out on Saturday.
There should be plenty of familiar names on the podium following each race, as teams battle to finish in the top four state qualifying spots (the top six individuals also qualify, regardless of whether their team earns a berth).
Certainly, Flowery Branch's boys are eyeing the top spot in Region 8-AAAAA -- and beyond. Featuring plenty of the talent that helped the Falcons finish second in Class AAAAA last season, Flowery Branch has spent most of the year ranked No. 1 and would love to add a fourth state championship to the program's trophy case in 2013.
That said, the Falcons are not taking anything for granted.
"We never assume anything, and we have respect for everyone we compete against," said Flowery Branch coach Jimmy Sorrells, whose Falcons won state titles in 2008, '09 and 2011. "Our No. 1 goal is just to qualify and move on. We always have high expectations, but we also know we have to stay focused on doing everything we can do to be successful."
Flowery Branch's boys are paced by a group of four standouts that have each won races this season, including seniors James Slavik and Nick Ashmead, junior Miguel Martinez and sophomore Jake Shewbert.
"Those guys have really been focused this season, and we do have four seniors on the team, so it's a veteran group," said Sorrells, who also expects Winder-Barrow and Gainesville to compete for a place in Carrollton out of 8-AAAAA.
The Lady Falcons will also battle for a spot at state against a heralded Winder when 8-AAAAA comes together on Saturday at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers.
A few days beforehand, the top runners from 7-AAA will also take their shots at earning their way to Carrollton in a highly-anticipated showdown at Unicoi State Park in Helen.
North Hall's boys and White County's girls have stormed past the competition for much of the season and will hope to do so again -- though both know it won't come easy on Halloween.
"We've got a lot of respect for Buford and North Hall, and we know we'll have to run a great race," White County cross country coach Sam Borg said of his girls team, which features one of the top-ranked runners in the state in sophomore Jenna Gearing.
Improving on an explosive freshman campaign, Gearing is hoping to make an indelible mark in the mountains, as her team guns for back-to-back 7-AAA crowns.
"She's hoping she can break the course record," Borg said. "She's been very focused on avoiding the 'sophomore slump' and has been beating all her times from last season."
Gearing is far from alone, however, on the third-ranked Lady Warriors, who also feature a standout No. 2 runner in Kristen Mitchell.
"She may be the best No. 2 runner in the state; she's had a great year," Borg said of Mitchell.
Strength in depth has also been a trademark for the North Hall boys this season -- in fact it's helped the Trojans to dominate, winning seven races and finishing second twice so far this season.
Featuring six varsity standouts that can all post low times at any given time, the Trojans can literally squeeze opponents out of the top five.
"They're all within 45 seconds of each other," North Hall coach Drew Rogers said. "We expected to be strong this season, and the guys have run really well."
Juniors Bryce Schuebert and Quintin Miles have led the way, though Zack Hill, Seth Chapman, Bailey Pless and Corson Teasley are often nipping at their heels, pushing the duo to even better finishes.
"We like to make our moves on the hills; we run on them every day around here," Rogers said.
Certainly the Trojans will have the chance to do that in Unicoi on a course that features one very strenuous hill, and North Hall knows it will have to run its race to fend off Buford, White County, Dawson County and West Hall.
"It's a great course there; it runs fast, and the runners really like it," Rogers said.
Region 8-AAAA also enjoys its new home at the Williams Mill Greenspace Park in Flowery Branch. Certainly Chestatee's boys and girls seemed to enjoy the course, winning both races at the venue in 2012, and both War Eagles squads will be eager to defend the titles when they compete on Wednesday.
Already Hall County champs, the Lady War Eagles will look to add to their trophy haul this season behind leaders Sara Beth English and Maggee Wilson. Johnson and Lumpkin County will also battle for state spots on the girls side, led by Evelin Avitia and Celeste Norton, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Chestatee boys will face a battle against region and in-county foe Johnson. The War Eagles feature standouts Jason Dang, Jack Carnes and Ivan Martin, but the Knights will counter with Gerardo Suarez, who broke the 8-AAAA record last week in a dual meet with the War Eagles, crossing the finish line in 18 minutes, 7 seconds.
Also on Wednesday, Region 8-AA's top runners will compete at Riverside Military in Gainesville, which could feature some intriguing match-ups between the host -- led by Marcus Gouthro -- and Jefferson -- paced by Addison Cochran and Kyle Kashuba. On the girls side, Union County's Emma Garrison will be favored individually, though the Lady Dragons -- led by Reese Bowles -- could be eyeing a team title. Rabun County and standout Sally Woerner will also play a big factor.
Also on Thursday, Area 2-A private/Area 4-A public will get underway at Athens Christian, featuring defending Class A public girls champ Towns County and a Lakeview Academy team with high hopes. Lions standouts Dustin Snyder and Lewis Brooks will look to put Lakeview in contention -- which is where many of these runners expect to be again on Nov. 9 at the state's penultimate meet in Carrollton.