By Jeff Odom
In only his second season, Freedom girls cross country coach Dwight Smith made strides not many see in a coaching career.
His Patriots advanced to the state meet for the first time in program history, placing 14th at the Class 4A final. Freedom also finished runner-up to Plant at the Class 4A-District 6 meet and took third at regionals.
If the squad can repeat its success, it will have to do so without leadership of two graduated seniors, including Smith’s daughter, Ashley, who became the first girls runner in Patriots history to sign with a college when she inked with Augusta State University.
Despite the departures, Smith believes his “young team” from 2011 has developed its own duo that can take the team even higher this season.
“Everybody is pretty much back from the varsity squad last season,” said Smith, who also coaches girls track and field and is the wide receivers coach on the Patriots’ football team. “Annie Tedesco and Alex Mitchell, they’re my leaders. That’s who I look up to and relay messages to. Everything I do, I feed it through them and they relay it to the team. … It’s nice to have that kind of leadership.”
Mitchell, a senior, is entering her second cross country season after running only track as a freshman and sophomore. The team captain said she is comfortable in her leadership position and added the experience of making it to states last season will make the squad strive for more this time around.
“I don’t feel any pressure, but I do feel the responsibility to lead them and encourage them and get them excited,” Mitchell said. “Last year, I didn’t really know what to expect, but this year I feel a lot more confident in myself and I know how to run a 5-(kilometer). I know what meets are like, so I feel like it brings a little more confidence into myself and that helps them achieve what we need to as a team.”
Tedesco said she has worked hard training physically and mentally the offseason to get better results at the end of meets.
“I just really want to have a better PR (personal record) this year and drop a lot more time, because last year wasn’t my best season,” Tedesco said. “I’ve had a lot better attitude in my head. I’m more excited. I’m more positive about workouts and running and it’s helped.”
Mitchell and Tedesco agree the team has bonded during the last couple of seasons. Mitchell said she owes Smith all of the credit.
“He’s definitely a great coach and he’s definitely influenced me throughout high school completely,” Mitchell said. “He’s really brought us to success, and he wants us to really stay focused on our goals and our running and training. His biggest thing is that we’re a family and we support each other.”
While finishing as district runner-up last season was big, Smith wants to be on top.
To do that, the Patriots will have to dethrone Plant, who finished with a perfect 15 points at districts last year. Smith said his squad “isn’t there yet” as far as knocking off the Panthers, but he said his team will turn heads.
“People in the school, they know, even coaches around the county, they know Freedom is on the map now as far as cross country,” Smith said. “All last year we were ranked No. 2 in the county and No. 13 in the state. So, people know exactly who Freedom is and they know who my girls are, how good they are coming back.”