Adding to tradition: Broncos seek program's ninth state championship

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

The Brookwood boys cross country program won its first state championship 20 years ago.

Since then the Broncos have been the premier running program in the state for the last two decades, capturing eight state titles.

But it's been six years since Brookwood won its last championship. That could change this weekend as the No. 1-ranked Broncos are the favorite to bring home the Class AAAAA title on Saturday at the state meet in Carrollton.

"That would be big," Brookwood boys cross country coach Ben Dehnke said. "I think they are aware of the tradition. I think they want to bring it back."

Since the Georgia High School Association expanded to five classifications, a Gwinnett County team has won the boys state title every year. Peachtree Ridge continued the trend last season.

"Not to get to overconfident, but if we can run a good race we should win it," Brookwood senior Tyler Anyan said. "The last three years we really felt like we could win it, but lost some close races."

Since 1984, a Gwinnett County team has won the championship in the state's largest classification 20 times. Brookwood can be the next team to keep the streak alive.

"That's a big deal. Us coaches and athletes take pride in that," Dehnke said. "The last couple of years when we've lost to Collins Hill and Parkview there's a sense of pride for the guys in the county. It just seems the bar is raised by Gwinnett schools."

Brookwood was expected to contend for the title last year, but a slew of problems derailed the team.

"It was a perfect storm last year," Dehnke said. "We kind of held on by a slender thread."

The Broncos finished with a respectable fourth-place finish despite having one runner with a broken arm, another at a national test the morning of state, one athlete who was sick and two more who were injured. Those problems have been forgotten this year.

"It's in the back of their mind and they know it can happen," Dehnke said. "The disappointment of last year has fueled this group."

The frustration of last year's finish has helped inspire this year's team. The Broncos had a strong track season behind Tyler Anyan, who won the 3,200-meter state championship.

But with the loss of four starters, Dehnke wasn't sure how this year's squad would perform.

"They have exceeded expectations," Dehnke said. "We had a great track season, but there were some questions marks after last year's cross country season. Kids were sick and injured at the end of the year and we didn't know how they would come back."

Dehnke is in his sixth season as Brookwood's head coach. He took over the program after the Broncos won their last title in 2003. He is assisted by David Thompson and Joe Carter, who helped the Broncos to four state titles during the '90s.

"We haven't won state since Coach Dehnke has been head coach, so we want to win it for him," Anyan said. "We want to bring it back to Brookwood."

Brookwood has won all six meets it has competed in this season, including the Gwinnett County and Region 8-AAAAA championships for the second year in a row.

However, the biggest win was at the Great American XC Festival in North Carolina. The Broncos defeated some of the top teams in the Southeast, earning national recognition. Along with being ranked No. 1 in Georgia, Brookwood is also No. 1 in the Southeast and in the top 25 nationally by two national polls.

"I thought we would be pretty good, but I wouldn't have predicted this year's success," Dehnke said.

Anyan and Tommy George have been the Broncos' top two runners for most of the year, but the emergence of seniors Carter Hewitt and Zack Robinson have helped the team. Both have been strong runners during their careers, but illness and injury derailed them last season.

Juniors Sean Brennan, Michael Giuliano and Jackson Wearn fill out the rest of the lineup.

"There hasn't been one kid that has blown everyone away, but all five have been really strong," Dehnke said.

Now the Broncos have one meet to complete a perfect season. Another trophy can be added to the decorated Brookwood trophy case. Last year's dissapointing state finish can be put behind them and another meet can be won.

"It's been interesting. I think the guys are relaxed actually," Dehnke said. "That comes from being so successful in October. There's a calm of the team. No one has to carry the group. They all feel supported."