By Trey Williams
Marissa Soulier saved her best for what would’ve otherwise been last.
The Unicoi County senior ran a season-best in the regional meet on Oct. 26 at Daniel Boone to secure the fifth and final individual spot in the state championships, which will be held Friday, Nov. 5, in Hendersonville at 2:20 p.m. (Eastern).
Soulier covered the trying course in 23:29.1, which gave her 11 1/2 seconds to spare for the last state berth.
“We knew going in there was a chance at state,” Unicoi County coach Thad Higgins said. “We talked to her about that quite a bit, about the time she would need to run. She PR’d (personal record) by something like 30 seconds – for this season. That made all the difference. That was her making that push, deciding she wanted to go after it.”
Soulier was Unicoi County’s lone girl during the pandemic season of 2020. Having teammates such as sophomore Kaitlyn Tilson and freshmen Karrah Dean and Danielle Bryant this year made a difference, as did the arrival of senior Shelby Miller after volleyball season.
“We’ve kind of been down in numbers a little bit the last few years,” Higgins said, “and that’s hard on the athletes because you need that camaraderie when you’re running. When you’re doing these long, tough sports you need friends around you. …
“Marissa did such a great job with this young team. I really can’t brag on her enough for how much she has led this team and spent time with them. Really, it’s odd to see a senior – she could’ve been hanging out with her friends somewhere else – and yet she went out of her way to spend time with our freshmen and sophomores. When we would have team dinners she was always the last one to leave. She just set a really good example for this team. I think she just found the love of running this year, and it showed.”
Sophomore Luke Capps paced the Blue Devils boys at the regional. He finished 24th overall and five spots behind the fifth individual state berth.
“Luke has been incredibly dedicated both years,” Higgins said. “He wants to succeed, wants to achieve. This year his goal was to get to state. Of course, he didn’t quite make that, but man he worked hard for it. His previous PR before our last race, I think, was a 19:58 or 59, and at the regional race he ran like a 19:25 (19:26.5).
“So just a huge effort, big PR. Daniel Boone is not a course to laugh at. It’s a tough course. So to get a PR on that one, yeah, he really went for it.”
Capps is on course to reach the state tournament during his career.
“We’re gonna see big success out of him the next two years,” Higgins said. “He’s doing all the things right and pushing himself running, even on times he’s not asked to. He’s making sure that he follows whatever plan is laid out for him.”
The Blue Devils boys squad is even younger than the girls team. Capps and fellow sophomore Triston Miller helped comprise the roster along with six freshmen – Connor Tipton, Humberto Mendoza-Lopez, Thaddeus Tipton, Jonathan Tolley, Cesar Martinez and Alex White.
“It is very, very encouraging,” Higgins said. “This year’s been a big change because we had those young runners and sizeable numbers team wise. … We had a competing year, a good numbers year and a good culture.
“The shift on the team was palpable. The kids wanted to be there. They wanted to be at practice. They wanted to hand out after practice.”
Indeed, four Blue Devils are voluntarily continuing to run with Soulier despite their season having concluded. Capps, White and Connor and Thaddeus Tipton are running with Soulier in preparation for the state meet.
“Those guys are at very different ability levels on the team,” Higgins said, “and I just think that speaks so highly of the friendship that they’ve formed and also how much they’ve come to love running this year. … They’ve been running (regularly) since the beginning of summer, and you’d think that much time would maybe burn somebody out – you’d be like, ‘No more’ – but these guys are still supporting their teammate and doing what they clearly love to do.”
Miller, an All-Three Rivers Conference volleyball player, also boosted team morale by running after the volleyball season ended.
“When volleyball wrapped up I mentioned offhand, ‘Hey, you should come finish the season with us,’” Higgins said. “And she did. She was at every practice she could be at and ran the same things everyone else was running and ran the races with us. She was just such a delight to have on the team.”
Higgins was also delighted to have assistant coach Chad Capps on board.
“He has been such an uplifting voice for the kids, so encouraging,” Higgins said.
The majority of Blue Devils ran their best time of the season in the regional. Most of the runners had no realistic shot at advancing to the state, and still they challenged themselves.
“They took our regional race very seriously,” Higgins said. “For most of the kids, you can look at times and know you’re not gonna be in the top 15, and yet I was proud of ‘em because that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like they threw it away like this is our last race. They actually committed to it and decided to run the paces that they were supposed to run and they saw a return – they saw the reward on that.”
Of course, it was Soulier who reaped the most gratifying reward.
“She knew what she had to do and she went after it,” Higgins said. “And hey, now we’re going to state.”