FORT PAYNE — Five of the top-10 girls and five of the top-10 boys from Fort Payne’s cross country team are back to take on the 2020 season.
The Wildcats open their season on the John R. Esslinger Trail of Champions in the Black and Gold Classic at Scottsboro High School on Saturday morning.
Geraldine and Ider are among the other DeKalb County teams scheduled to participate in the season-opening event.
“I am so ready to get this first meet under way, as are the athletes,” Wildcats coach Ashley Jackson said. “Most of these athletes run track, so their season was cut short and they are just ready to compete.”
Aylin Vega returns as Fort Payne’s lone senior girl. She was an all-state performer last season and helped the Wildcats secure a second-place finish in the state championship meet.
Vega is joined by junior Maddie Jackson and sophomore Anahi Barboza as girls with the most experience in Fort Payne’s program. Both Jackson and Barboza were all-state runners last year and have earned all-state honors every year since they were seventh-graders, a major accomplishment in Class 6A competition.
“As of now, no other girl runner from (Fort Payne) can say they made all-state every year,” Ashley Jackson said.
Fort Payne boys returning the most experience include senior Arturo Rodriguez and sophomore Ian Norman.
Rodriguez placed 26th at the state meet last season and Jackson said she’s confident that he will be an all-state contender this season.
Jackson said the young team has several returning runners ready to challenge themselves in filling the spots of last year’s seniors.
“Both the girls and boys teams have some seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who will be huge contenders for being the top 10 for the varsity team,” the coach said, “and could possibly make a huge impact on how well the team does at sectionals and state.”
After a long offseason, the Black and Gold Classic will give Fort Payne’s runners a good first test to see where their fitness levels stand.
“Scottsboro has a great course that hasn’t changed since I’ve been coaching, and our athletes love running on it,” Jackson said. “It’s a much faster course than most courses we run during the season. Our last meet of every season is held there as well, and just about everyone has a (personal record).”
Fort Payne began its summer workouts June 2 and met two-three times per week prior to school starting. Jackson said the sport made for little change when it came to adhering to social-distancing guidelines this summer.
“With running, we are able to social distance easier than your typical contact sport, so I really didn’t have to modify much,” the coach said. “The biggest change for us is just getting used to having a mask on us at all times. We don’t have to run with our masks up, but I have required them to keep (masks) around their necks in case we couldn’t social distance after the workout.”
Following Saturday’s opener, Fort Payne’s next scheduled meet is the Pisgah Invitational, hosted by Pisgah coach Gus Hembree at ToKnowHIM Trails, on Sept. 5.
“Everyone knows coach Hembree has developed a course that is very challenging and difficult,” Jackson said.