BY COLLIN BROOKS
The hundred of miles that the five seniors on Daniel Boone’s cross country team have logged during their training hasn’t driven them apart, it has simply brought them closer together.
That camaraderie has made for a rare feat for the Trailblazers as five of their seven participants on the varsity squad are seniors. But what isn’t rare for Boone is the place they find themselves in. For the sixth consecutive season the Trailblazers will be racing for a state championship.
“They are very cohesive and have gelled as a group and as a team and they are just a great group of young men,” Daniel Boone coach Len Jeffers said. “And it’s a fun group. Some of them may have not expected this a few years ago, so it is a big deal to them to be a part of it and to go beyond what some of them thought they could do.”
One of those guys is senior Ben Varghese. The lean and lanky upperclassman took home a state title last track season in the 3200-meters, but Jeffers said that he has come a long way since his freshman year.
“He was about 13th or 14th on the team as a freshman, we have freshman now that are running faster than what Ben did as a freshman,” Jeffers said. “But he had a breakout in May of his freshman year, right after track. Things changed that summer leading into his sophomore year.”
This year though has been a bit of a coming out party for the senior. He has broken multiple course and meet records including the Trailblazer course record, the Big 7 Conference meet record and the Region meet record. Those were held by former All-Americans Adam Barnard — a 2014 graduate of Daniel Boone – and former All-American Quintin McKinnish from Morristown West.
“Between the two of them, they held course records and meet records that Ben has broken all of,” Jeffers said. “There are a lot of things that don’t surprise me about Ben, but some of those records, I thought they would stand a little bit longer.”
But Varghese said individual state championships and records don’t mean much to him.
“Not only have we had success as a team but as an individual I have been doing really well,” Varghese said. “But that also comes by the team helping me out in workouts. The reason I have success as an individual isn’t only because of myself, it is because of my teammates, my coaches, my parents and the whole community around here.”
Helping to push him and make themselves better in the process have been seniors Connor Loyd, Daniel Johnson, Zac Branham and Caleb Sells. Two sophomores finish off the varsity squad with Chance Bowman and Matt Huff.
The last five times the Blazers have competed in the state championship, they fared well, finishing in the top five each year and the past four seasons they found themselves in the top 3, finishing third last season — a year after winning the title in 2014. The two previous seasons the Blazers were the runner-up.
“There are more expectations than just getting there. But we expect to do our best once we do get there,” Jeffers said. “Some schools have an expectation just to qualify, and this team — like the past five years — they’ve not been content just to qualify and get there. They want to go up against the best they can and see where they stack.”
Watching Varghese put in the work and seeing the previous team’s results have been big motivators for the Blazers.
“We started out at the beginning of the season training long distances to get a good base and now we are into the later season and we are working on speed work and getting our legs turning over,” Loyd said.
The early season workouts consisted of 75 miles in a week, now they are focusing on smaller distances in order to try and remain fresh, according to the seniors. But the routine and the schedule have been strategically tweaked, according to Branham.
“We’ve changed our practices where we will peak at state, rather than peaking at an earlier race,” said Branham, who noted the two-week break that the team had to regain their legs. “I think that was just sort of a cool down period until we got to the conference, region and state meets. So I think that just helped us recover our legs from previous races.”
And with the group of five seniors, Sells said that knowing it will be their last race should add a bit of motivation.
“It gives us the mentality that this is our last race for Boone and it makes us all want to put it out there at the same time,” Sells said.
The Blazers should be battling for a top five finish in the 3.1-mile race, but the favorite going into the race is probably Brentwood, according to Jeffers. A bigger group vying for the second spot, includes Daniel Boone, Oak Ridge, Wilson Central, Memphis-Bartlett and Murfressboro-Oakland.
And while many of the runner just smile when asked about the expectations, Varghese is honest.
“They’re very high,” Varghese said. “But all we can do is we just have to go down there and keep our minds focused and run to the best of our ability. We have put in the work, now it is just 95 percent mental and we are just going to have to go.”