Watch practically any high school cross country or track event in the state and chances are the name of at least one, and more often several, SCISA-member schools and their student/athletes will be mixed in with their peers on the public school side at or near the top of the final-results list.
A few weeks back, at the Low Country Invitational on Johns Island, female athletes from three schools in the South Carolina Independent Schools Association – Heathwood Hall, Pinewood Prep and Spartanburg Christian Academy – placed in the top 10.
At that event, the top two finishers – Spartanburg Christian’s Logan Morris and Heathwood Hall’s Sydney Ellen – finished one and two. Maryah Nasir of Pinewood Prep and Heathwood’s Molly Joseph also finished in the top 10.
Those three schools, along with Ashley Hall, another SCISA school, also did well in the team competition, each placing in the top 10 at Low Country. It’s a result that’s has become routine for SCISA schools in recent years in cross country and track.
Steve Conway, the cross country coach at Spartanburg Christian, started the cross country and track programs there 11 years ago. He was hired by Dwyane Morris, the father of then five-year-old Logan Morris.
“In those early days, it was almost a triumph for a SCISA 2A school to field a full team,” Conway said, but he viewed that as an opportunity.
“The lack of competition gave me hope that if I could develop the team we could win a state championship quickly,” he said, which in turn would build momentum for the overall program.
The next year, the SCA girls placed second at State.
“That changed everything,” Conway said.
In 2005, 14 girls were on SCA’s cross country team and that season they won the first of the school’s nine state championships. Their time at that meet was 22.18, some two minutes faster than their time at State two years earlier.
But Conway feels that 2007 marked a “turning point” in SCISA 2A girls.
“That year, the first-place 2A team had a faster average time than the 3A champ, and the 2A runner-up had a faster average time than the 3A runner-up,” he said.
Just five years earlier, the SCISA 2A champ wasn’t as good as many 3A JV teams, Conway said, but in ‘07 both the first and second-place 2A teams were faster than their 3A counterparts.
“I’m not sure that has happened before in any sport,” Conway said. “For us, the key was when SCISA split 2A/1A off from 3A back in 2001. It didn’t happen immediately, but knowing we had a shot at State gave my team the encouragement to do all those little things necessary to get better.”
Larry Salley, former Porter-Gaud cross country coach and now the school’s AD, said the rapid rise of girls cross country distance running has changed the SCISA landscape in recent years.
“Just 10 years ago, running anything under 21 minutes would guarantee a top-10 individual finish at the SCISA state meet. Now we have Heathwood, Pinewood, Ashley Hall, and Spartanburg Christian often ranked in the overall statewide top ten teams, and girls who can run 20-flat having almost no chance at all-state honors.”
Salley said part of that success comes from the coaches at these SCISA schools.
“Steve Conway at SCA, for example, is known statewide,” Salley said. “Wilis Ware at Heathwood, Gail Bailey and John Slepetz at Ashley Hall, and Kelly Hazel at Pinewood are all also well-respected.”
On the boys side, Porter-Gaud has enjoyed recent cross country success as a SCISA school, riding in part on the legs of Brent Demarest, who set a number of records during his four years at the school.
Conway said the recent improvement among SCISA schools in cross country and track has made those schools “an attractive option for distance runners.”
“In cross country and track, the stopwatch speaks for itself,” he said.
Both Salley and Conway see continue growth for private schools and their athletic programs.
Conway said the nature of endurance sports, particularly cross country and distance running, contributes to the success enjoyed by the SCISA schools.
“The beauty of our sport is that there are no barriers,” Conway said. “It’s so encouraging to know that we can run any team in the state and measure ourselves against the best. We get the same shot as everyone else at Eye Opener and at Coaches Classic, or any other meet.”
“There seems to definitely be a demographic overlap between private schools and endurance sports, and SCISA has made great strides in gaining acceptance on a bigger stage,” Salley said, noting that two years ago the Taco bell Invitational agreed to accept SCISA the same as any public NFHS association. Last year, the Penn Relays followed.
“The successes of athletes like Graham (Tribble), and Brent, and now Logan Morris continue to raise the bar,” Salley said.