CONYERS - It's hard to believe Saturday's Class AAAA boys state championship will be the end of one chapter of Shuaib Winters' standout running career at Heritage.
In the blink of an eye, he went from a promising freshman to a premier cross country runner.
"We talked Shuaib into running cross country as a freshman from the football team. He was a 90-pound defensive back/wide receiver," Heritage coach Brian Smith said. "I had him in elementary school. He worked his way up to a step behind my No. 1 guy by state as a freshman. In his sophomore year, he really exploded at state when, on a warm day, he battled to fifth place with a 16:45 out of nowhere.
"Last year if you'd ask him, he'd say he had a little bit of an off race at state. But he had a solid junior campaign and was named to the All-Metro Team by the Atlanta Track Club, which is the elite runners around the state."
Winters has produced his best season this year, which includes a victory in the Class AAAA division in the Last Chance Invitational on the state meet course in Carrollton two weeks ago with a time of 16 minutes, 14.09 seconds, his best ever on that course.
"This year has been his best year, he's been real consistent," Smith said. "He got a win out at Last Chance, he got a win in the big race at Wesleyan. So he's come a long way in four years."
The turning point in Winters' career came in the Region 8-AAAA Championship in 2005. As a sophomore, he won the individual title by upsetting Salem's C.J. Reed.
"That was the turning point for him, when, at the end of his sophomore year, he went from being an above average runner and broke into that elite class," Smith said. "He beat C.J. from then on he's been the best runner in the history of our school since 1976."
Fast forward to this year.
Last Saturday, Winters' reign as Region 8-AAAA champion came to an end when Dacula's Mike McClay passed him - in nearly the same spot Winters passed Reed two years ago - to claim the region individual title.
Now he turns his attention to the state meet, where he's one of the favorites after the sizzling time from two weeks ago.
"Shuaib definitely has confidence going into the race, because of how hard he's worked this season and his experience. This is the fourth year for him going to state," Smith said. "For him, it's just a matter of having a good day, because there are a lot of good runners in the state in our class. It's a matter of being on your game at the right time."
The outright favorite is Chapel Hill's Taylor Lord, who enters the race as the defending champion. Right behind him are Winters, McClay, Raymond Walton from Mays and David Connolly from Marist.