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Speeding Ahead: Williamstown girls’ cross country team not slowing down soon

Photo by Jay W. Bennett From left to right, Williamstown’s Brianna Winsett, Ella Hesson, Chloe Lightfritz and Natalie Sawin celebrate their all-state finishes after Saturday’s W.Va. Class A state meet. Other than Hesson, the other three return and give the Yellowjackets a solid chance to claim a fifth straight championship, along with other returning teammates, and new additions in the 2021 season.

WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va. — Two of the girls who helped launch the Williamstown cross country dynasty, Ella Hesson and Emilee Ellison, may be graduating later this school year but their departure doesn’t mean an end to the Yellowjackets’ Class A dominance if one looks at the roster.

Everyone outside of Wood County better brace themselves. Almost the entire girls team returns for the 2021 season, including three runners who finished in the top 10 at Saturday’s state meet: Brianna Winsett, Chloe Lightfritz and Natalie Sawin. Other big performers back include Reagan Ortiz, Brookelyn Reynolds and Torie Combs.

And soon begins the era of Alyssa Sauro, as well. With her comes other talented runners in Ava Lightfritz and Alexis Wynn. All three are rising up from the middle school this summer.

The good fortune is something Williamstown head coach Larry Cassady can’t help but be giddy about.

“I tell you what, I wouldn’t want to be any other coach than the Williamstown cross country coach. What we have coming back and what we have coming up from the middle school level next year means we should at least be battling for another state championship,” he said.

Battling may be an understatement.

Their all-state quartet weren’t the only girls who impressed at the meet. Ortiz, as a freshman, Combs, and Reynolds all finishing in the top 25 meant all seven runners who contributed points to the victory were in the top third of the field. Doddridge County was the only other team close with its four runners in a similar position.

Having that kind of firepower means few teams can hope to compete with the Yellowjackets. Especially now that the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission plans to keep the Class AA and A races separate.

Then there’s Winsett’s new outlook and how she can now train unimpeded over the next months.

Not a lot of people know according to her head coach, but she was trying out a new strategy and adapting to her new race plan for much of the season. Instead of her running hard and lasting as long as she could, she trained hard to be stronger at the end of the race and really push for a top spot.

“She would put together good early miles and then start her push,” Cassady said.

As seen Saturday, it paid off.

Her second place state finish proved that.

“The best thing that came out of her this year was her confidence. She is right up there with the front runners almost the whole race. And she was able to pull off her plan by passing the fourth and third place runners in the last half mile of the state race, which is exactly what she trained for,” Cassady said.

Now she enters an offseason free from worry about her approach and instead able train with her plan in mind from the beginning of the offseason.

“If it isn’t broke don’t fix it,” Cassady said.

Sawin’s approach also will differ again this offseason. Cassady thinks it will be more of what she did last year when she grew tired of being behind the other girls who ran track and were in better shape.

Chloe Lightfritz now has the opportunity to fully heal from a hip injury that may have hampered her last couple of races. Though her performances still impressed her head coach.

“Her injury happened two weeks before the LKC and we kind of kept it quiet and we didn’t know if she would run in the conference meet. But she told me she would run and she did. She really was phenomenal to end the year,” her coach said.

Combs, Reynolds and Ortiz are going to “provide great leadership” to the incoming girls.

In the middle school girls, Cassady says the team receives reinforcements from three runners who are ready to go immediately.

“I think all of them are going to adjust right away. They have been running together the last few years and for some of their workouts we throw them in with the high school girls just to see what they have and they have always answered the call,” he said.

“That is why I have sort of always felt blessed to be at Williamstown because we always work together with the middle school. And by the time the girls come up to the high school program they know the expectations and the workouts and the long routes we go. The girls move right into being freshman runners without having to stretch themselves very much.”

But there is more about these three, according to him.

“I have coached some teams where when the kids get up to the high school level they don’t know about running the extra mile, but not these girls. They would run five miles if that is what the distance was,” he said.

Thanks to this approach, the coaches have the freedom to mix up the workouts and when the season begins next September they can look at each race differently. But for now it is all about preparation for the 2021 season.

“We talk to the girls alot about not becoming complacent and that no one is going to hand anything to you. That you have to put in the summer miles and build a base and make a sacrifice,” he said.

Making those tough decisions may be a bit easier this summer as Craig Kellar’s Doddridge County team certainly appears capable of providing a challenge to the Yellowjackets. The Bulldogs top three runners Emily Gola, Maria Bee, and Lexi Lamb return as do all but one of their teammates who ran with them in the state meet. They’ll also be receiving a boost from the middle school ranks in Katie Cottrill, Bailey Holden, and Marley Sias.

Cassady believes a fifth straight state championship is possible under the conditions that his girls put in the work and the miles.

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