Although only part of the three-headed monster that has been powering the boys’ cross country team has seen the postseason promised land, with the additional support of a couple of freshmen, Head Coach Anthony Branch and his varsity squad are preparing for a deep run that starts with Tuesday’s district meet.
Junior James Gassiott, Branch’s “silent assassin,” has truly stepped up to be the leader of the team although you might not expect it the first time you meet him.
“He’s one of the most humble guys I’ve coached, but you get him on the course and in competition, that guy will cut your neck and let you know that’s how it is,” Branch said.
The coaching staff has been urging the team to really run as a pack in order to work off each other and keep everyone together. Gassiott has emerged as the one the rest of the team looks up to for when exactly to kick it in gear.
Part of the reason he became that leader everyone gravitated toward is because he was on the team in Branch’s first year as head coach when the Tigers won district. Then only a freshman, Gassiott has since developed further and has paced the team alongside fellow upperclassman, senior Nahol Ahmed.
Although just as unassuming a leader at first glance, Ahmed stands no taller than 5 foot 6 inches but with less weight to carry around, he is able to make quick breaks to lead the pack although running hasn’t always been his favorite.
“I didn’t really like running [at first] because it was long distance and [I quickly felt like] ‘Oh man I’m dying,’” Ahmed said. “But then I would look up to my upperclassmen and they would push me and then it was getting good…I was winning meets and getting medals and the feeling you get is great so you try to replicate that every time.”
Now in his final year at Sealy High, Ahmed has started to come around on the idea of continuing this whole running thing and will mull over the chance to take the step up to the college ranks, although he hasn’t narrowed down his options quite yet.
The other member of the trio in front of the pack has a little more time to figure out if he wants to continue running at the next level as Vladimir Hernandez is only a sophomore.
Coach Branch retold the story as Hernandez randomly showing up to practice one day to inquire if he could join the team. Branch quickly saw his talent and made sure not to let him go.
When asked what led him to join the team that fateful day, he prefaced his story noting it was, “Kind of a weird one.”
“So I was watching the movie ‘McFarland, USA’ and I thought, ‘OK that looks like a really competitive sport … and a mental one too,’” Hernandez started. “So I tried it and I was okay I guess and from there on I really liked it and I liked competing and I liked running so I kept up with it.”
Those fruits of labor have paid off in the form of being the first-place finisher for the black and gold over their last two meets heading into the district meet.
Across the final four meets heading into the postseason, the Tigers claimed three wins with most of the damage coming from these three young men.
The other two runners to fill out the five varsity spots are taken up by talented freshmen in Xavier Olvera and Daniel Medrano, but Coach Branch likes to think they’ve been looking so good because of these three leaders.
“These three guys are the guys and we’ve got two freshmen with them too but I don’t think they run as well without the leadership these guys bring,” Branch stated.
And that’s not to say the younger competitors haven’t pulled their weight, as Olvera served as the team’s first-place finisher in the Brazos meet.
But at the end of the day, the breakthrough meet where the entire team saw with their own eyes that they’ve got something special going, was their first of three consecutive wins at Bellville.
Branch recounted the story from his sideline perspective and noted, “I was over at mile two yelling ‘Stay together,’ and they actually saw all these guys take off ahead of them. We’re sitting in like 30th place just cruising running our pace and then mile two is just about when everyone else gets tired, but we’ve got the ringleader here [Gassiott] calling the shots.”
Gassiott knows what it takes to get deep into the season after the regular season, in search of becoming one of the top 12 teams in all of Class 4A.
He has already begun to prep his teammates for that road, noting, “We’re mentally preparing for the next step because we’re trying to get far ... We want to go as far as we can this year and I’m confident in our ability.”
All of that gets put on the line Tuesday afternoon in Brookshire where teams in District 25-4A come together to see which are the top teams that get to survive and advance through to the next round of competition.