COVINGTON - It's amazing how when one door closes, another opens. No one knows that better than Eastside sophomore cross country runner Sam Johnson.
After having a benign tumor removed from his femur during spring break this year, his doctor suggested he stay away from football.
"It wasn't real big, but it was big enough to cause some pain," he said. "My doctor left it up to me, but he said the bone would be a little weaker. This is the first year since seventh grade not playing football."
Rather than sitting around feeling sorry for himself, Johnson, at the encouragement of Eastside baseball coach Michael Poor, decided to start running cross country.
At first, Johnson ran just to stay in shape for baseball. Now, less than five months later, Johnson is Eastside's top runner.
Johnson shattered the school record of 18 minutes, set by Dylan Fowler, with a new time of 17 minutes, 49.42 seconds.
New to the sport, he still does not have the feel needed to be the front-runner and set the pace in a race. That is why he prefers to have someone else set the pace and wait for his chance to pass before the finish line.
So far, his strategy has worked, as he is ranked 77th in Class AAA out of more than 1,100 runners according to www.gatfxc.com.
"I've been the front-runner, and it's hard to keep your solid pace through the whole race. Usually, I'm not in the lead. The first race we had I started out in the lead and I was dead the first mile. Everybody started passing me," he said. "Luckily, I did fine in that race and ended up winning."
Now that he's got Eastside's record, his next goal is to make it to the Class AAA state meet.
In order to do that, he must either finish in the top six individually or the team must finish in the top four in the Region 8-AAA championship at 2 p.m. Thursday at Athens Academy.
For Eastside, the biggest competition for the fourth spot in the region meet is going to come from Franklin County and Stephens County.
In order to make state as a team, something the Eastside boys have never done in school history, the third, fourth and fifth runners are going to have to find a way to step up their performances.
"It's going to be a challenge to beat one of them for the fourth spot," Eastside coach Leah Carlisle said. "It's going to count on my No. 3, 4 and 5 guys to step it up because that's where they're ahead of us. My No. 1 and 2 guys are scoring higher than theirs."
Sophomore Ace Cooks is the No. 2 runner for the Eagles after Johnson.
"Ace is running close to Sam with a (personal record) of 18:12. He's ranked 14th in the region and 112 in (Class) AAA," Carlisle said.
Hoping to step up their efforts to improve their standings in the third, fourth and fifth scoring spots are Tim Guy, Mikey Rue, Dalton Bender, Jason Croom, Austin Knight, Tyler Edminston and Kyle Yeomans.
For the Eastside girls to return to Carrollton for the state meet - they made it for the first time in 2005 - they are going to have to try to out-duel favorite Jackson County while keeping an eye on Stephens and Franklin County.
Running up top for the Lady Eagles are Alle Haynie, Melissa Bender and Blakely Smith.
"They have been running well as the top three," Carlisle said. "I like the chances for the girls, but it's going to be pretty close as well."
The other four runners that make up Eastside's top seven, all freshmen, are Chrisse McLaemore, Deanna Kaluta, Tori Hunte and Morgan Goldman.
"They have all improved a lot. I'm looking forward to working with them," Carlisle said. "We went to state in 2005, it was just the girls. The boys have never been. I think they're talented enough to do it."
Manny Fils can be reached at email@example.com.
SideBar: Cross Country
What: Region 8-AAA cross country meet
When: 2 p.m. Thursday
Where: Athens Academy