It’s not easy running in the shadow of an elite performer.
But Liberty’s Daniel Saxon did it, and he did it well.
As a sophomore, Saxon ran behind Nick Tilson, the Lions’ No. 1 cross country runner and the Times Runner of the Year.
“He had Nick Tilson ahead of him when he was training and racing,” Liberty co-coach Dan Jones said. “You don’t have to be all that great at anything, particularly like race strategy or race tactics, when you have a Nick Tilson leading the way.”
Tilson graduated in the spring, and Saxon moved up to replace him.
“When you have to do it on your own, it’s a huge burden,” Jones said. “We wonder every year when someone has to take on that role because you can’t predict how they will accept the responsibility of being the top person.”
There was no need for Jones and the Lions to fret.
Saxon, this year’s Times Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, took charge and set the standard at Lions’ meets.
The team responded splendidly behind the three-year varsity runner — Liberty repeated as county, Class 2A West, regional and 2A state champions.
“This year, he had to do it all himself,” Jones said of Saxon, who won a county championship, finished second in the region and fourth in the state. “Dan stepped right into it, figured it out quickly and did a great job with it.”
Entering the year, Saxon said he knew the challenge would be difficult, but he was eager to accept the role nonetheless.
“I knew I would have to become a pace setter, and overall leader for the team,” Saxon said. “I took it on, did my best and benefited the team more than myself. It was about setting the tone and a good pace for all of us.”
The 5-foot-11, 135-pound Saxon also faced another significant challenge: proving he could run again after missing the spring outdoor track and field season with a back injury. He overcame his three lost months in a big way.
“Since I was out for the outdoor season, it really gave me motivation to have a better season for cross country,” Saxon said. “Even through I was out for that long, I wanted to show I could come back and be just as great as I was.”
One way to do that was ratchet up his summer training.
“That was an indicator,” Jones said. “It was pretty clear we could depend on him to be the leader. When he leads, it makes the other teams have to run a race that’s his race. Not their race. He decides the strategy, the pace.”
Winning at Brunswick gave Saxon a big dose of confidence. It’s something he said he needed.
“It gave me a new tone to the season,” he explained. “After that race, I really starting feeling good about the season.”
But capturing the county title Oct 25 at McDaniel College meant more to Saxon. He won the race in convincing fashion, beating Westminster’s Noah Griffin by more than 10 seconds.
Saxon’s time was more than 15 seconds fast than year, when he placed second.
He took second in the regional meet at Liberty on Nov. 2, and nine days later helped Liberty to its third straight Class 2A state championship by grabbing fourth and ranking as the top county finisher in the meet.
Saxon improved his time over last year by more than six seconds.