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Rowland has North boys cross country on the rise

Courtney Czerniak competes in the state championship cross country meet last year where she finished 15th overall.

Courtney Czerniak competes in the state championship cross country meet last year where she finished 15th overall.

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Natalie Raia competes in the state championship cross country meet last year where she finished 39th overall.

When John Rowland took over as North Gwinnett's boys cross country coach three years ago, he was the fourth coach in as many years.

Rowland has brought some much needed consistency to the program and it's starting to show on the course. The former Georgia State cross country coach has the Bulldogs primed for a state meet berth this season. That's something that was unheard of three years ago.

"We're in the toughest region in the state, so the goal for us is to get to the state meet," Rowland said. "If we can get to state, then there's no reason why we shouldn't finish in the top 10."

North has never finished in top 10 since moving to the state's top classification. The Bulldogs were one spot from qualifying for state last year, taking fifth at the Region 7-AAAAA meet. The following week they watched as all four Region 7 teams placed in the top seven, including region champion Mill Creek as state runner-up.

"I call our region the SEC of Georgia cross country," Rowland said.

North placed sixth at the Gwinnett County championships and was third at the Westover Invitational. It was the first team award in three years for the program.

The Bulldogs will rely on seniors Spencer Bradham and Andres Littig this fall. The duo hold the two fastest times in school history, with Bradham running 16 minutes, 3 seconds and Littig at 16:04. Littig took fourth at the track and field state championships in the 800-meter run.

"We return our top six from last year, so I'm pretty excited about that," Rowland said.

Seniors Cole York, Trevor Bradham, Alex Hudgins and Tony Jones round out the top six. Sophomores Will Varner and Jeramy Hampton and junior Trey Powers will battle for the seventh spot. Hampton was an 800-meter AAU national champion for his age group this summer.

"We want to see what he can do," Rowland said. "Can he turn that track time into cross county time?"

Rowland took over as North's girls head coach last season. He inherited a team that had finished in the top three the last four years, including a state title in 2009. Last year's team took 10th and is hungry to return to the podium this fall.

"We've said our goal is to get back on the podium," Rowland said. "It's not out of reach."

The Bulldogs are led by juniors Courtney Czerniak, who finished 15th at the state meet last year, and Natalie Raia, who took 39th.

The rest of the team includes senior Jordi Harrison, Cassidy Houchins and Bridget Nabb, junior Alexis Raia and sophomore Claire Keyes.

"It's a young team. They have a lot of potential," Rowland said.