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CMA lives out a dream by winning state XC crown

Posted: November 5, 2018 3:07 p.m.
Updated: November 6, 2018 1:00 a.m.

THE CMA CROSS COUNTRY TEAM won a state title in Spartanburg on Oct. 27. Pictured on the bottom row, from left, are Mitchell Tucci, Jonathan Le, Theodore Martin, Niles Leach, Dalton Montgomery, Temitope Fapetu and Iain Habina. The second row includes coach David Kerney, Wyatt Hart, Ross Stephenson, Matt Healy, Alexander Harbaugh, Stephen Long, William Hyatt and head coach John Heflin. Pictured on the third row are David Venegas, Tobias Warnock, Sam Lawing, Nicolo Pucciarelli, Joseph Barriere, Jackson Lewis and James Leland. Missing from the team photo were Domenic Mancuso and Leo Eckhardt.

Dreams do come true and, prayers get answered

Last summer, one night while sleeping, Camden Military Academy head cross country coach John Heflin had a dream. In it, he said he remembers being told by God, by placing it in his spirit, that Heflin’s runners would win the state independent school athletic conference state championship. A few weeks later, when he met with the 2018 Spartan harriers, Heflin laid down the gauntlet to a team on which several members were running cross country for the first time.

“From day one, I told this team that if we did not win the state championship that it would be a disappointing season,” Heflin said of his opening remarks at that first meeting of the season.  “Some people may look at me and say that is kind of bold statement for a coach to make but, I told them why.

“I told them that just having a dream without faith and works would not work.”

On Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Milliken Plant Course in Spartanburg, everything came together for CMA. The Spartans were led by a first place finish from sophomore David Venegas and an eighth from sophomore Sam Lawing  while classmate William Hyatt was 12th.  Ted Martin, a senior, came in 15th place with senior Joseph Barriere came in 25th. That day, Heflin’s summer dream came to fruition as the Spartans’ 22 points easily bested the 50 scored by runner-up Legacy Charter as the state championship trophy was headed for CMA’s East Camden campus for the first time.

For Col. Eric Boland, the school’s headmaster, it provided a perfect ending for a group which jelled quickly and never lost sight of their goal in a sport in which, oftentimes, is unappreciated by those in the stick and ball sports.

“What I liked about this team is that they had guys who worked hard and stayed with it,” Boland said. “They persevered and did not look at is as individuals but, running as a team. They took what is, basically, an individual sport and turned it into a team sport. That’s what I liked about it.”

While the 2018 journey ended in the Upstate, it began in a meet in McBee on Sept. 5 as CMA performed well, just days after reporting to campus, against class A, AA and AAA entries from the South Carolina High School League. “After that,” said Heflin who is also the school’s dean of students, “they saw that we had the possibility of doing great things with this team.”

For the most part, cross country teams run one meet per week. The Spartans would sometimes race three races --- 3.1 miles each --- in the same week.

“It was pretty tough,” said Niles Leach, a senior from Tonasket, Wash., of running more than one meet in a week “It’s much more fun (than practicing), though.

“You have more competition so, you push yourself harder. Your legs just have to get used to it. Sometimes, you don’t run your best because you ran the day before. Sometimes, you have to run slower one day because you have another meet the next day and you want to run better because the next meet was more important.”

Leach was a first-year member of the team who ran in middle school in Washington and wanted to get back into shape, again, so he decided to run cross country this past season.

For Venegas and Martin, running cross country was a way to stay in shape for their two primary sports. For Venegas, a Chapin resident, running in the fall led way to playing basketball for the Spartans in the winter. 

Martin is native of the Boston suburb of Marblehead, Mass. While going to high school there, he was an outfielder whose team twice played for state titles in the Commonwealth.

Neither gave much thought to being as successful as they would become in cross country.

“I started running because my coach thought it would be a good idea to start conditioning for basketball which is the sport I enjoy the most,” said Venegas, who was the Spartans’ top runner. “I’d been playing a lot of basketball and had been doing a lot of conditioning work for basketball.”

There were several occasions when the lure of playing inside the gym had him giving second thoughts to running the streets in and around the CMA campus on hot afternoons.

“A couple times actually,” he said when asked if he ever thought of quitting cross country. “I thought I would quit because I didn’t have enough time for basketball. I didn’t enjoy it because we were just having practices. It is a hard sport.

“Coach told me to push through it and that would be the best decision. I told him I trusted him, did what he told me and, here we are.”

When Martin, who has his sights set on becoming a lawyer and possibly serving as a entering the military as a JAG, never ran cross country before. When he decided to enroll at CMA to give him a leg up on a military career, his father urged him to join the cross country team.

“My dad ran 28 Boston Marathons and the whole, entire summer he was saying. ‘You should run cross country. You should run cross country,’” Martin said. “I’ve always wanted to win a state championship. I had the opportunity to do that two times in baseball but, I had never won one.

“I’m an athlete, I guess I can say, so I just ran with the team.”

Being from the Northwest and New England, respectively, Leach and Martin had to get as acclimated as they could to the harsh South Carolina summer and early fall weather. It was a new experience in training in the heat for both runners.

“It’s more than just running,” Leach said. “This school is mentally draining and then, coming out here and running … it’s hard to do but you feel better afterwards and that’s what I tried to focus on. It helps you mentally relax and cool down a bit from the school.”

Serving as an assistant coach under Heflin is David Kerney, who is in his second year as a teacher at CMA. A former soccer and lacrosse player in his hometown of Bethesda, Md., Kerney ran in between sports in order to stay in shape.

As a teacher/coach, he knows what the runners have to do in the classroom and said getting outside and clearing your head with an afternoon run provides the opportunity to clear one’s head.

“Running is not necessarily the most exciting thing,” Kerney said. “We get them out, run through the neighborhood and getting them better every day. You’re really running against yourself and your last best time. That’s what we try to encourage and motivate them with.

“We’re teacher-coaches. It’s a good release for me after being in the classroom all day. It’s nice to get out here, run around and hang out with the guys.”

As cross country coaches, Kerney and Heflin understand encouraging runners who may or may not want to be out there comes with the territory. Bad days sometimes outnumber the good and providing a pat on the back and encouraging runners is almost a daily ritual.

Through it all, though, Heflin said having dedicated student-athletes leads to more good days than bad. And when it all comes together for a championship, all the aches and pains and thoughts of quitting are put in the rear-view mirror.

“The state championship is always in the back of our mind but we just need to improve every time we run, “ Kerney said of the grind. “We want to get a better time and the championship will come and, it did.”

For Heflin, the title came after fielding many a good team in his 19 years at CMA. This one was special, though.

“All of our teams here have been like family,” he said. “Our motto from my first year of coaching has been ‘One heartbeat,’” he said. “It was very imporant that if anyone had an issue, whether is was cross country or not, it was all of ours becaue we’re like a big family.

“I think the bar has been set high here.”



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