Runs In The (Coaching) Family

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From the outside looking in, it would appear Miller Grove and Saltillo would have one of the most heated rivalries in all of high school sports. But that's not necessarily the way their respective coaches see it.

Both Class 1A schools, separated by just 34 miles, have built elite programs with enduring success.

Miller Grove has won the last five state championships in a row. The Hornets placed six in the top 20 out of 150 runners at state last fall. 

Saltillo was the state runner up in all but one of those seasons including 2019 when Miller Grove edged them by just three team points. The Lions did carry home the big trophy in 2016; Miller Grove finished bronze that year.

"It is a rivalry, but it is a healthy one. If we can't win it, I would rather they win it," said Saltillo athletic director and coach Bill Giles.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Miller Grove athletic director and coach Dalton Herndon, "If it can't be us, then we want it to be them."

The teams definitely push one another, but it all comes out in a positive way. That relationship can be at least explained by a coaching tree intertwined as it gets. 

Gary Billingsley, who started the Miller Grove program around 2010, was coached by Giles in high school and later joined him in the coaching ranks at Avery before arriving at their respective programs. The story goes that Billingsley was looking for ways to toughen up the Miller Grove boys basketball team and looked to his old coach for help. It was Giles who suggested the addition of a cross country program. 

Photo Credit: Miller Grove ISD

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Herndon, who spent several seasons under Giles at Saltillo, said, "Gary wanted his guys to be more mentally tough, able to handle adversity, finish when games weren't going their way -- just to be a tougher team."

While success has flowed through the program that won their first state title in 2014, the Hornets have had to overcome a bit of adversity over the last two seasons. Billingsley departed for Tilden McMullen after the 2020-21 school year. Cody Walker took the reins last year, but also departed for another opportunity. Herndon leads the 2022 rendition.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out as the new season progresses. Training began as soon as the spring track season concluded and continued through the summer. Expectations are the same - to be on the state podium come November. 

Miller Grove lost four to graduation, but Herndon said they have 12 runners who have not missed a summer workout. 

"That's the example and expectation that has been set before them, to hold that culture that has been established in the last few years," he said.

Top returners include senior Kavan Smith and sophomore Ryker Haivala.

"Those two set the pace every day in practice, putting in the mileage, running on Saturdays and Sundays, just having a continued streak every week," said Herndon.

Senior Anthony Lester, who was on the state team last season, and freshman Eli Griffin are also competitors to watch. 

Photo Credit: Sulphur Springs News Telegram

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"Last year's seniors earned four gold medals and four gold rings. The younger ones want that same success. They see what the others had to do -- to be consistent in their effort, consistent in showing up, consistent in their mileage, and consistent with runs on the weekend. They know what it takes to win. They want to put in that same effort to accomplish the same or similar to what the others have done before."

While Miller Grove is experiencing a significant reload, Saltillo is returning six from last year's state runner up. 

Coy Collins and Gunner Tarver placed fifth and seventh respectively at 2021 state. Cristian Trejo, Luke Ritter, and Adrian Don Juan return. Giles said Collins tends to lead by example and Tarver is more vocal while Ritter gets them fired up. 

"We want to give them a chance to win it. We are going to be there. Are we closer than we were last year? Yes, we are," said Giles.

"Getting on that podium is what feels good. And that feeling lasts a long, long time. We are kind of getting tired of silver though."