Anyone familiar with the Section of Death?
Unless one is intimately familiar with the cross country scene in the state of Alabama, the answer is probably no. But what about the SEC West?
That’s the equivalent of what Coach Chris Schmidt faces in his fourth year at Thompson--and every year prior. The South Alabama native spent time at Daphne, Spanish Fort and Scottsboro before arriving at Thompson, but never fully experienced the depth of competition that dwells in 7A Region 3.
7 of the top 10 teams in the state reside in the section--a scenario unlike almost any other in Alabama high school sports. As many know, only a few teams make it out of each region and into the state qualifications. That means multiple ranked teams don’t even get a chance at the state title. It’s a mind-blowing circumstance, but as a competitor, Coach Schmidt relishes the challenge.
“As an athlete you want to compete against the best of the best, you want to challenge yourself, you never want to settle,” said Schmidt. “And that’s the great thing about this area: our kids always have to be on point, always have to be on their game. In this area you’re not peaking at state, you’re peaking at sectionals.”
Still, the reality of the situation is a stark one.
“It kills me because you have some great teams that don’t have that opportunity to go to the state level and yet they’re ranked fifth in the state, but they’ll never get that chance.”
Last year, Thompson’s teams didn’t qualify for state playoffs, but three runners were able to represent the Warriors individually.
“Overall I thought we had a pretty good season, but we’re going in the right direction. We’re finally building and building,” said Schmidt. “We had three individuals qualify for the state meet Chase Jones, Brandon Lee and Emily Allen. Chase and Emily Allen will return for us this year.”
McKenzie Hougue, another standout, broke her leg during the season and otherwise would’ve qualified for the state meet as she now runs for Samford. Brandon Lee also signed to run at the next level for the University of North Alabama.
Now, as his staff turns to face a new season, Schmidt knows he has All-State caliber athletes, but grooming a state champion runner, getting Thompson to the top of Region 3 and establishing a championship culture remain the goals.
“We had a good June. The team’s grown, we’re at 50 plus kids just on the varsity squad and good things are happening. It’s like riding a bike, once you qualify you always qualify,” said Schmidt. “You never forget that habit, it becomes a tradition and that’s what we’re trying to do at Thompson. When you get a piece of that candy you always want some more.”
Schmidt is also looking to add a few more pieces to his puzzle and hopes to find a few on Thompson’s soccer team.
“It’s a win-win situation for both programs, I condition them and do all the dirty work and at the same time if they’re able to contribute to at the varsity level that’s great for all parties involved.”
Thompson brings back some good talent from last year and Schmidt can see a few young guns rising through the ranks to be contributors in 2019.
“I’m expecting great things from Chase (Jones), definitely All-State. He definitely has the chance to win state for cross country this year. And I’d like to see if our boys can qualify for the state meet.”
“I’ve got Ethan Jones and I think he can contribute. Definitely going to be a top seven varsity guy and down the road I see great things,” said Schmidt. “Obviously, All-State and definitely see him running at the collegiate level so no pressure, but I see great things for him.”
If the veteran coach is confident enough to convert soccer players, it was inevitable that he would do so with some of his track athletes as well.
“Jaylen Lewis was a sprinter I turned into a distance guy,” said Schmidt. “He would do the 110, 300 meter hurdler then he could run the 800, I said ‘You could do 5K’ and he’s probably my number two, three guy right now.”
The girls team also has established leadership and will look to take that next step as well.
“Emily (Allen) was our only girl who qualified last year, she’ll lead our team this year and I’m looking to get a couple more girls qualified for state if not the whole team.”
“Lauren Moon is a sophomore right now, didn’t run cross country last year, but showed up for track and she has really come along this offseason and really caught my eye this summer,” said Schmidt. “She could possibly qualify for state if she plays her cards right.”
“Abby Grace Walker, she’s our team leader and I see great things for her, I think she’s going to be a key person. Obviously, she’s leading us in that captain role, but she’s doing a great job on the course right now too.”
Returning firepower and rebuilding depth has the Warriors looking to not only compete in Alabama’s most crowded division, but become a household name.