Hoover High School cross country coach Mary Birdwell sighs in relief. "Oh, I was so nervous," she lets out, "So nervous."
Nervous? One might wonder what she ever had to worry about. Her boys team, led by seniors Phillip Moore, Jamie Oliver, and Michael Brown, just won their fourth straight 6A cross country state championship, this one coming by a whopping 59 points. Hoover's top four runners swept first through fourth places, and the team score of seventeen was just two away from perfection.
And the domination surprised no one. The last time Hoover lost to an in-state opponent was early in the 2000 season and their average margin of victory this year was over 46 points. But Coach Birdwell and her runners have learned, and learned the hard way, in recent years just how little being the favorites can mean on race day.
"You just never know until it's over," says Birdwell. "Anything can happen."
A common sports cliche, but Birdwell's teams have redefined 'everything'. Despite having the talent and the training to win the state track title each of the past three years, Hoover has finished second every time, losing by margins of 10, 7, and 5 points. What have been the glitches? They have ranged from the ordinary—injuries, mononucleosis, dehydration, and false starts, to the absurd—a funeral, a fall, an alarm clock, and a tennis match.
Though most of the ill fate has fallen during track & field season, what looked like a shoe-in cross country championship last year turned into a close call. Usually a contender to win, Oliver had one of the worst races of his career to finish seventh on the team, and Nick Berry used his last energy to stumble across the finish line. Had he fallen ten meters earlier, the title would have gone to McGill-Toolen.
Just as bad luck has not phased the group that makes up the Hoover distance corps during track season, neither has cross country success gone to their heads. In 1999, then-freshmen Brown, Moore, and Oliver pledged to win the state cross country title all four years of high school. After three years of making good on that promise, 2002 looked to give the threesome their least challenge. But the seniors were too busy being chased by sophomores Robert "Bobert" Bedsole and Scott Novack to ever rest on their laurels.
It was this combination—three lifelong friends and two younger runners seeking their own share of the spotlight—that gelled to form perhaps the strongest team in state history. The numbers for Hoover's 2002 season are staggering:
- Nine meets won out of ten attended (one exception is nationally-contended Great American Festival in North Carolina)
- Zero losses to in-state competition.
- Average score: 28 points
- Average winning margin: 46 points
- Five meets with scores under 20 points
- Average finish of a top five runner: 5th
- Individual winner in seven out of nine races.
- Four different runners won races individually: Phillip Moore (4), Robert Bedsole (1), Jamie Oliver (1), Michael Brown (1)
Though every member of the team and the coach give different specific reasons to account for the success, the general consensus is that it was earned through the hard work of each. Now the recently-crowned champs turn to the indoor track season, where they have set a high standard of success for the sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers, and throwers who will join them in a quest for a triple crown—championships in cross country as well as indoor and outdoor track. Hoover will be the favorite again in both indoor and outdoor track, but as all 6A cross country teams recently learned, it will be hard to catch the ever-ready Bucs asleep with a title on the line.