​Epps, Morris look strong for openers

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SPARTANBURG - Malik Epps has a bad habit of looking back. After Saturday, perhaps the Byrnes senior should spend more time looking ahead.

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If the Eye Opener is any indication, Epps could be in for a big year. He out-kicked Alex Crigger of team champion Science Hill (Tenn.) to win the international race in 15:58.04 at The Roger Milliken Center.

"I should not be looking back, but the first race back, I wanted to get a win so bad," Epps said. "That's one of my disadvantages right now. That's something I've got to overcome, but if you want to win so bad, you're always thinking about the person behind you. I have to be more confident and race for time when I'm in first place."

Then again, Epps said he had been thinking about his last Eye Opener ever since the end of track season.

He recalled competing in the event as a freshman, running with the junior varsity, "placing like 200th."

"I always looked at people like (James) Quattlebaum (of Christ Church) and Andre Ivankovic (of Daniel)," Epps said. "They won it previous years, and I never had any thoughts of coming out here and winning it my senior year. It's always been a dream to come out here and win it."

Epps said he had heard about Science Hill, a top-five finisher in the Eye Opener each of the previous three years and a team expected to challenge for the championship this year.

"I knew their team was pretty strong, so I knew they would play it smart and go into the lead," Epps said, "so I had that in my mind the whole race, and that was actually true.

"There were a couple guys in front of me right before the two mile, and I got in front of them and took the race out. A guy ended up passing me right near the end, so I out-kicked him and finished strong."

Epps had the lead from about the two-mile mark until Crigger overtook him with about 250 meters to go. But Epps out-kicked Crigger from that point.

Epps' time was a few seconds off his PR of 15:53, which he achieved when he took sixth in Class AAAA at state as a junior.

"But I didn't really end my season that well," he said. "I didn't have too much endurance from being sick. But after this season, I am looking to go to Foot Locker South and hopefully qualify for nationals."

Spartanburg Christian Academy's Logan Morris did qualify for Foot Locker nationals last year, and that was after a slow start.

Morris began with an exclamation point Saturday, winning the Eye Opener in 18:11.73 (new meet record).

"Last year, I got a late start to the season," said Morris, a senior. "We did some vacationing in late June, early July, so my races were a little behind early on, but by the end of the season, I was ready to go.

"I'm hoping to do that again this year, but I'm in much better shape at the beginning of the season this year. Hopefully I'll have a great season like last year."

Morris finished well ahead of her closest challengers: Riverside eighth-grader Jessie Crowley, who was second in 18:29.83; and Morristown-West (Tenn.) senior Makenzie Jones; last year's champion, who was third in 18:39.54.

"I knew it was going to be a really hard race," Morris said. "There were some great girls in the race -- Jessie from Riverside and Makenzie from Morristown -- so I knew that if I wanted to compete, I just had to run smart and race smart, so that's what I did, and I just went out there and had fun with the race and went after it.

"I knew that they were trained well right now. I didn't know if I was trained as well, but I knew I could race smart and I could win that way. That was my tactic going in, to be smart and be strong, and it worked."

Morris said she had planned on making a move late in the race, but she wound up taking the lead before the 2,000 mark. Then it became a matter of widening the gap.

"It feels amazing to be able to start out this strong, and I don't feel like I've been doing a lot of speed work to be able to prepare for this race," Morris said. "I've done a little bit, but I don't want to peak too soon, so to be able to come out and run this time on this course with that amount of training, it just makes me excited for what I can do in October and November."

Crowley was runner-up to Morris after being second to another Foot Locker qualifier -- Libby Davidson of E.C. Glass (Va.) -- the previous week at the Providence Invitational at McAlpine Park in Charlotte.

Crowley led Riverside to a first-place finish again in the Eye Opener. The Warriors, who ascended to the top of the MileSplit Network data base rankings after the Providence Invitational, had 27 points. Morristown-West was second with 84.

For Riverside, Carter Marchbanks was fifth (19:03), Cate Ambrose sixth (19:14), Emma Spencer seventh (19:17) and Abigail Smith 12th (19:26).

"We're a lot further ahead of where we were last year at this meet," said Riverside coach Eric Cummings, whose No. 5 runner was at 19:59 in the Eye Opener a year ago. "We looked at the times, and this is a lot faster."

Their No. 6 and No. 7 runners, Ashley Fallow and Anna Yang, came in at 19:51 and 20:10, respectively.

"I was expecting a little bit of a letdown," Cummings said. "Times were a little bit off, but this is a slower course than McAlpine. "We knew that coming in. The weather was perfect, though."