Last fall, the Lady Indians won their first state team championship since 1997 by posting a remarkable average of 19:08 for the rolling 5-kilometer course at Percy Warner Park in Nashville.
That was the fastest team average since the state meet switched from 3 miles to 5K in 2006. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a faster average even for the old 3-mile course.
“We knew this group had a chance to be really good coming out of middle school,” Tribe coach Bob Bingham said. “I knew looking at 2016 when we got runner-up and we still had a really good team average that we could do really well that day.”
The title would not have been possible without Sasha Neglia and Emma Russum, the best 1-2 combination in the state this year.
“Running with Emma these last four years has been amazing,” Neglia said. “She’s a really good teammate and a really hard worker. She’s improved every year and it was awesome to see her have a breakout year this season.”
“Running with Sasha the last four years has made me better because I saw how hard she worked and I wanted to be that good,” Russum said. “It really pushed me to be better.”
BATMAN AND ROBIN
When the team was at full strength, both Neglia and Russum were seldom outside the top 10.
Neglia is the more decorated of the two. She has three individual cross country titles and two track titles and boasts personal bests of 17:02.5 for cross country 5K, 4:49.10 for 1,600 meters and 10:17.23 for 3,200.
“Sasha is one of those that is really kind of more to herself, but she has gotten better in talking to people,” Bingham said. “She has more of a guarded personality.
“She’s such a competitor, though, and she is as focused as anyone on anything that I’ve ever seen. When we are doing speed stuff, she is bound and determined every rep not to let anyone beat her.”
If Russum weren’t running in one of the fastest time periods historically in Northeast Tennessee, she’d be the top dog.
Her personal bests range from 18:30.30 (5K), 5:15.75 (1,600) and 11:09.62 (3,200). She has been all-state twice — both in cross country — and was poised for a big track season before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the spring sports seasons in Tennessee.
“I was really excited to see Emma run this year. i think she was due for another good season,” Bingham said. “Emma is a fierce competitor, too, and her improvement over the last two years has been remarkable. Coming out of middle school, I wasn’t so sure that she was going to focus completely on running or swimming.
“Once she was committed to it, you could see her confidence start to take off. She’s also kind of the vocal leader of the team.”
Together, the duo has a 17:46 average for a cross country 5K, which ranks among some of the best pairs of teammates ever in state history. Since 2000, only Knoxville Catholic’s Megan Ferowich and Joanna Thompson (17:16 average), White Station’s Rita Jorgensen and Virginia Hine (17:23.5) and Baylor’s Hannah Jumper and Tenley Godfrey (17:45) rank ahead of them.
OFF THE COURSE
Neglia and Russum are close off the competition field as well.
“Emma is probably one of my closest friends outside of running,” Neglia said. “We’ve taken a lot of classes together and we do hang out sometimes.”
“I didn’t run on the same team as Sasha in middle school, so when I raced against her, she was intimidating,” Russum said. “She doesn’t say much, but once you get to know her and she starts opening up, she’s actually really funny.”
BIGGER GOALS THAN STATE
The Lady Indians were close to an at-large bid to the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland with their fourth-place finish at the regional. The team averaged 18:35.0, historically the best performance for a squad from Tennessee.
“We actually ran better there than we did at state, I think,” Neglia said. “We weren’t really on anyone’s radar at that point, so there wasn’t nearly as much pressure as there was at state.”
“Most teams when they go down to that regional race, they’re done because they ran so hard at the state,” Bingham said. “I asked them after if they still wanted to go and it was a resounding yes. They felt like they had a good chance of qualifying as a team.
“Everyone ran really well that day and it was so special. We have five really mentally tough runners and this was a really unique group.”
“The whole team did so well that day and I think everyone had a PR that day,” Russum said. “Julianna (McReynolds) dropped like 40 seconds and had never broke 19 (minutes) before and Grace (Allen) ran like 19:04.”
TO THE NEXT LEVEL
It’s tough for even one person to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship in any sport, but the Lady Indians make it look easy though. Neglia, Russum and fellow senior McReynolds all are hitting the big stage in the fall.
Neglia will attend North Carolina. Russum and McReynolds will room together at Chattanooga.
Allen, also a senior, will go to Milligan to run track as well.
“My experience here at D-B has been amazing,” Neglia said. “I’m so grateful for all the relationships that I’ve built with the coaches. Coach Bingham is an awesome coach and in talking with other people, I’m blessed to have had a good coaching situation.”
“Coach Bingham is one of those coaches that never puts any pressure on you to perform,” Russum said. “He always just says to do your best and he’s one of the funniest people around. He’s such a great coach.”
“It has been really satisfying to see all of those seniors earn a scholarship to continue their careers,” Bingham said. “They’re all great academically, too. There’s not a better team and it’s been so much fun to watch them evolve not only as athletes, but as people.”