CONYERS - For three seasons at Heritage, Jake Hudson ran in the shadow of one of the school's all-time best boys cross country performers - Shuaib Winters.
Now in his senior year, Hudson is the leader of a Heritage boys squad looking to make some noise Saturday in Carrollton after earning their first region title in school history.
"It feels pretty odd not having Shauib here. I really do miss him a lot," Hudson said. "I'm used to running with him and stuff. It's kind of different being the No. 1 (runner). I've had a really good season so far, so it's been fun being our No. 1 runner. I learned from him to train hard your whole season and really just stay after it all the time."
The Patriots will compete in the Class AAAA boys state meet at 10 a.m. Saturday, while the Lady Patriots will follow in the girls meet at 10:30 a.m.
There's no doubt that Hudson's leadership is one of the key ingredients in Heritage's success this season.
"Since his freshman year, Jake has been a very dependable part of our team and just played many roles," Heritage coach Brian Smith said. "Even as a freshman, he was in our top seven (runners), then he gradually moved up to the middle of our top five. Last year, he was our solid No. 2 runner for most of the year."
But this year, Hudson took on the new role of team leader, replacing Winters. It was a perfect role for the senior.
"He has gradually evolved into one of the best runners in AAAA. He put in a lot of work this summer. We went to Hard Labor Creek (State Park) and he was the leader out there for our team, taking us through two-a-days as we camped out there," Smith said. "Straight out of that, he went to Furman University and continued working out twice a day under the scientific training program in exercise science.
"He's a real good leader. We've had some good runners through here, but Jake's a good runner and a good leader. He sets the tone by example. He organizes the guys to run together. He keeps us going and thinking the way we should. In that regard, he's been an invaluable member of our team."
On Saturday, Hudson led the Patriots to a top four sweep in the Region 8-AAAA championship, capturing a boys cross country region title for the first time in school history. He claimed the individual region title with a time of 17 minutes, 28.60 seconds.
"It felt great knowing that we accomplished something that Heritage had never done before," Hudson said. "Just to be a part of that meant a lot to our school and our team."
Now, he turns his attention to the state meet and his goal of a top-10 individual finish.
"I want to get at least a top 10," Hudson said. "There's going to be a lot of competition, so I'm definitely going to have to pick it up from what I ran in the Last Chance (Invitational)."
Two weeks ago, Hudson placed third on the state meet course in the Last Chance with a time of 17:08.71. To reach his goal, he'll have to better his personal best this season of 16:57.54, set in the Sandy Creek Invitational, by about 10 to 11 seconds.
"Jake raced out there a couple weekends ago, so he knows the course well. He's been at state for three years now, so he knows it's a crowded field," Smith said. "As a matter of fact, last year there was a pile up of runners and he fell down in the first quarter mile. He got up and still ran his personal best of the year.
"He knows he's got to get out pretty good just because of the crowd. Last year, 10th place was 16:46, and that's probably going to get him in the top 10 this year. He's just got to relax and trust that he can do it."
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.