VALDOSTA -- All the Lowndes' boys cross country team has done this year is improve. And win.

Heading into Saturday's GHSA Class AAAAA state meet in Carrollton, the Vikings would like nothing better than to notch another victory. However, the more realistic view has Lowndes shooting for a top-10 finish to cap a remarkable turnaround.

Last year, coach Craig Barnes's first at Lowndes, the Vikings struggled to a fifth-place finish in the region. This year, Lowndes soared to first in 1-AAAAA, won four of the five meets the team entered and never finished behind a region opponent.

"They've put in a lot more miles," Barnes said. "They're committed. They run on the weekends, too, even when we don't practice. The experience last year and them training harder has made them better."

Barnes also deserves his share of the credit for the turnaround.

"It's mainly because he pushes us harder," junior Josh Abinal said. "He motivates us."

Abinal has received the biggest boost, leading the Vikings for most of the past two years. But the rest of the pack isn't too far behind. The team's other top four racers, sophomores Matt Tisdale, Ben Young and Ray Devogt and junior Jesse McKinney, usually clock in within 10 seconds of each other making for consistent team finishes.

"I feel a big responsibility to pull us along," said Abinal, who completed the St. John's 5K Road Race in 17:43 this past weekend.

That was the formula that worked at the region meet, where Abinal ran fifth and Young nipped at his heels in sixth. All five runners finished in the top 20. Abinal will be looking to improve on his season-best 17:12 as he shoots for 16:45 and a medal at state. But, he knows he'll have four other Vikings gunning for him.

"It's a very big competition," Abinal said. "You never know if you're going to come in first for your team or second.

"That ability to train - we all have that motivation."

And it should only grow as the entire group returns for next year.

"The more they win the more motivated they are to train harder," Barnes said. "Once they saw how well they competed the first few meets against all the other region teams, that kept them motivated all year.

"They wanted to win region. They didn't want to settle for second place even though they came all the way from fifth place last year. They still wanted to win and that was their goal from the start."

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