North Atlanta High School is celebrating its first state championship in 21 years!
The girls’ cross country team placed first at the Georgia High Schools Association (GHSA) State Championship Meet for Class 6A. The boys’ team placed third. This is the highest finish ever at the state meet for both teams.
The girls team is led by 11th grader Clara Heppner, who had a second-place overall finish, and 10th grader Catherine Townsend who placed third overall. The team is rounded out by runners Heidi Heppner (10th place), Olivia Massar (24th place) and Ebba Sjoberg (31st place), Madeleine Mertens, Sara Anne Hamilton
The sole senior on the team takes the win with pride. Anna Yoder has been running for six years. She cried twice at state just thinking about leaving the team next year.
“We’ve had a different head coach each year and it was definitely difficult to learn to adapt, but I’m excited to see what the team does next year,” she said, adding the team has a great foundation.
Besides coaching changes, another challenge faced by the squad is an influx of several new members. “We definitely overcame that really well and it helped us win,” said 10th grader Catherine Townsend.
New team members include sisters Clara and Heidi Heppner. Runners for almost their entire life, the pair say being part of a team and sharing it as sisters is very special. The homeschooled pair became eligible to join the North Atlanta squad after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill into law in May 2021 allowing homeschoolers to play sports and participate in other extracurricular activities, as long as they live within the school boundaries, take at least one class at the school, and meet all the requirements of other eligible students.
Exchange student Ebba Sjoberg joined the team when she moved from Sweden in July. The junior never ran cross country before but decided to try out and loves being part of the group.
The boys varsity team is also celebrating after taking third place at the state meet.
“We were definitely the most prepared there. It was unexpected but it shows the hard work we put in,” said 11th grader Sumner Kirsh of the boys’ big win.
Preparation and training is part of the winning strategy of Coaches Nicholas Cluster and Matthew Farrell, both first-year coaches at North Atlanta. “We practice together as one team, which includes all of the strength training, the running, JV and varsity girls and boys groups,” noted Coach Cluster.
Knowing that the entire team is behind them cheering them on makes a difference to 10th grader Cam Shapiro and is also a theme that resonates with 11th grader Brent Shannon, who explains the dynamic of this winning combination, adding: “You could see it coming in the workouts. They would push themselves and they would push us.”
Training for the entire boys and girls crew in the summer and runs throughout the fall season. Charlie Hanes, the sole senior on the boys team, said of the girls’ discipline: “We saw it coming all year, they were super prepared.” This preparation included running six days per week in all weather conditions.
Cluster, the head coach for both teams, is also new to this sport but not new to competing. The former sprinter and self-proclaimed “football guy” said he fell in love with cross country because of how hard they compete. “They inspired me! Seeing their dedication to come into practice, they show up and I know I had to show up!”
Cluster, a former APS student and graduate from Grady, now Midtown High School, says an essential component was how the teams bonded. “We are a family,” he said. “Varsity welcomed JV and the older team members welcomed the new kids.”
The boys team consists of Theodore Meredith (22nd place overall), Sumner Kirsch (23rd), Charlie Haines (32nd), Holt Harris (41st) and Brent Shannon (90th). Owen Patton and Charlie Long participated as well.
The North Atlanta High School cross country team now looks forward to next season and neither is satisfied with the current win.
“I’m excited!” said Olivia Massar, the only 9th grader on the girls varsity team to compete at state. “This shows what we are capable of!”
“We are coming back stronger than ever!” added Sumner.