THERE was plenty of excitement when Stratford Athletic Club’s youngsters assembled at a snow-dusted, cold and muddy Burbage Common in Leicestershire for the penultimate West Midlands Young Athletes’ Cross Country League fixture on Sunday, writes Brian Gravelsons.
A full team produced some sparkling performances in round four to ensure a third placed finish is still in their sights.
With Northampton & Rugby and Wolverhampton & Bilston finishing the day ahead by 3,580 and 1,865 points respectively, and only one fixture remaining, an improvement from their current third position is fairly improbable for Stratford, who are 525 points ahead of fourth placed Royal Sutton Coldfield AC – a gap that will hopefully be maintained by a full Stratford AC team in the final fixture.
The conditions at Burbage Common were so tough there were tears both before and at the end of the races in the younger age groups.
Simply finishing such a demanding and treacherous course should be seen as an achievement in itself and every Stratford AC junior athlete should be extremely proud of their performance.
In the usual fashion this season, the U17 women started the day’s proceedings and this was a real benefit as it afforded the advantage of running on the course before the inevitable deterioration race after race.
Jessica Sheppard (20th, 22.11) used her extensive experience to make sure she did not start too quickly, picking a perfect pace which enabled her to work her way through seven of the field as she led the team home.
Hannah Bexson (30th, 23.23) followed Jessica’s lead in picking up several places as she maintained good form throughout the 4km.
Another sterling performance from Harriet Flynn (34th, 24.54) completed one of the best team performances this season as the team finished seventh on the day and moved up to sixth position overall.
The U11 boys’ race is always a fast and furious affair, so it was a surprise to see all the athletes manage to round the first tight bend without a problem.
Alex Adams (1st, 6.24) kept his cool in the early stages, staying out of trouble and relying on his tremendous strength for the finish.
For when the going got tough, Alex really got going and held the lead as he exited the wooded quagmire. Once in front, Alex was not going to let it go, showing tremendous strength in the extremely treacle-like, yet very slippery, finishing straight, to become only the club’s second junior athlete to win an individual race in this league.
Spencer Corder (8th, 6.44) maintained a strong run throughout to gain his second top ten finish of the season, whilst Alfie Organ (27th, 7.20) battled hard throughout the 1.6km course and enjoyed his best run so far this season.
Caleb Spriggs (42nd, 7.33) continues to enjoy his running and Adam Taylor (45th, 7.48) demonstrated the mud would not prevent his continued improvement throughout the season.
Angus Tombs (97th, 9.21) became the first of many victims of the perilous final straight. Falling completely flat on his back, ending up covered head to toe in mud, Angus simply picked himself up and finished in fine style like a consummate professional.
The U11 boys’ team finished third on the day and maintain the same position overall.
The U17 men put in their best performance this season to finish fourth on the day and are now in fifth overall, a tantalising 27 points from third position.
Fergus Allison (4th, 18.53) took his improved performance in the County Championship and raised it further with a spectacularly confident run.
Fergus started fast and then continued faster and, as others struggled with the conditions, Fergus seemingly glided across the tough terrain to his finest finish this season.
Oscar Barbour (17th, 19.48) started well, but struggled to maintain his form as the unrelenting conditions took their toll over the 4.8km course.
Seb Hopper (23rd, 20.27), had to use his strength in the early stages to avoid being forced into the spiky bush that signalled the first tight turn and then maintained a strong run to continue his sequence of top 25 finishes.
Murray Jackson (37th, 22.31) battled tenaciously with the demanding course and should be pleased with his highest placed finish this season.
There were 113 brave U11 girls who took on the character-building 1.6km large lap and Ellie Deaner (24th, 7.53) led the Stratford team home, with Molly Bullock (26th, 7.55) and Maria Watkins (27th, 7.55) staying in close contention.
All three were not enamoured with the tricky conditions, although they should all be pleased with their excellent performance.
A mud-speckled Maisie-Joy Spriggs (33rd, 8.02) finished strongly as she rose to the challenge the course posed, whilst Millie Perkins (37th, 8.07) found it hard to keep her usual high tempo but should not be too disappointed given the dreadful conditions.
Maddie Linfoot (40th, 8.15) battled hard and achieved a great result as she enjoyed her best run of the season so far, as did Sophie Ross (55th, 8.47), who also risked a mud coating with a strong sprint finish, managing to pick up a few places for her effort.
Sienna Evans-Cook (86th, 9.21) ran a courageous debut cross country race for the club to complete the U11 girls’ team which finished a creditable sixth on the day and remain seventh in the overall standings.
Eight U15 boys from Stratford AC took on the tough trial of two large laps that equates to just under two miles and Archie Musk (53rd, 14.35) showed his grit and determination to lead the team home and earn his highest finish this season.
Adam Bayliss (59th, 14:49) gave the final straight short shrift as he powered through the mud, picking up places and spraying unsuspecting spectators in equal measure.
Owain Jones (61st, 14.52), who showed great endurance throughout, continued his recent good form, whilst Dion Love (63rd, 15.04) just managed to keep in front of his brother Rowan Love (65th, 15.09) as both turned in strong and consistent efforts.
Adam Pomeroy (71st, 15.30) continues to have a fine cross country season and is sure to reap the benefits on the track in the summer.
Matthew Ross (74th 15.51) and Matthew Vickers (80th, 19.09) triumphed over the course in tenacious fashion to complete a solid team performance and the team finished seventh on the day to remain in the same place overall.
The course may have been more demanding, but this did not deter Ellen Taylor (24th, 13.27) and Georgie Campbell (5th, 12.26) leading the U13 girls’ race in their usual style in the early stages.
Georgie, the newly-crowned Warwickshire county champion, used her strength and determination to press home another top five finish, while Ellen was only just short of her previous race ranking, not an easy thing to do over the 2.5km decaying ground.
Ellie Bryan (55th, 14.20) ran well looking deceptively comfortable, while Evie Lowe (56th, 14.35) worked hard to pick up a few places over the second half of the course.
Hope Lawton (68th, 15.06) and Charlotte Gravelsons (86th, 12.57) both coped well with the conditions, using their strength to great effect, whilst a gritty, solid run from Isobel Hopper (98th, 16.46) completed the team which finished in sixth place on the day and remain fifth overall.
The U13 boys’ team lacked its usual depth with only six Stratford AC athletes encouraging each other on the start line before facing the daunting 3.2km.
Josh Angus (16th, 12.30) led the team home, continuing his consistent form, followed by Jack Hemming (45th, 13.35) who put in an incredible second, large lap, picking up some 14 places.
Not far behind Jack was Ned Campbell (48th, 13.44) who continued to impress as his meticulous training pays dividends.
James Bexson (70th, 15.04) produced another strong, consistent run and Fin Hutchinson (76th, 15.11) exceeded his expectations with by far his most accomplished and mature run this season.
Harry Gravelsons (86th, 19.19) was feeling decidedly unwell before the race, yet still courageously took on the harsh conditions. Almost giving up after the first lap, he continued, only to end up running the last half mile with not the full quota of footwear!
This was a really tenacious effort he should be extremely proud of and overall the team finished eighth on the day, yet still hold on to fifth spot overall.
The U15 girls’ team completed the day’s racing around the two uncompromising large laps of near ankle-deep mud.
Imogen Sheppard (23rd, 15.16) led the team home with confident aplomb, closely followed by a tremendous effort from Abbie Wootton (27th, 15.27).
Olivia Hall (36th, 16.00) started strongly and then struggled to hold her position, yet still finished just ahead of club rival Daisy Musk (41st, 16.07), who adopted the strategy of a steady pace throughout.
Edie Hutchinson (51st, 16.35), inspired by her brother’s fabulous performance no doubt, showed her grit and determination to achieve her best performance this season.
Eugenia Bessey (61st, 17.09), still smiling throughout, and Anna Gionis (62nd, 16.23) found the course a challenge and both finished impressively, satisfyingly picking up a few places in the final stages.
Poppy Butler (71st, 17.52) and Isla Jackson (74th, 18.05) equally got the better of the 3.2km course and should both be pleased with their best performance this season.
The team was completed by a superb performance from Thea Pepperell (78th, 19.13) who had this tough cross country race as her debut for the club – one she is sure to remember for some time.
The U15 girls’ team finished sixth on the day and remain seventh overall.
Overall Stratford AC scored a total of 5,896 points – their second highest ever total – placing them fourth on the day, only 30 points behind Royal Sutton Coldfield AC.
The final fixture is at Perry Park in Birmingham where, although nothing is certain in sport, a full Stratford AC cross country team have a very good chance of securing third place overall, which would be their highest ever finish in the league.