By AKILAH IMANI NELSON - ainelson@thestate.com

Luke Lovelace of Chapin wins the cross country meet at Lexington High Wednesday. Photo by:
  Jeff Blake/jblake@thestate.com
Luke Lovelace of Chapin wins the cross country meet at Lexington High Wednesday.

It’s a familiar sight.

Here is Luke Lovelace emerging from the woods, about one-eighth of a mile from the finish line, his closest opponent nowhere in sight.

Here is Lovelace crossing the finish line, breathing heavy but not the least bit faint. Here he is, talking to a reporter, as the second-place runner finishes nearly two minutes later.

This is how many of Lovelace’s races have ended since he joined Chapin’s varsity cross country team in 2003. It has happened often enough some spectators are surprised to see Lovelace still crossing finish lines at high school meets this season. Lovelace, a favorite to win Saturday’s Coaches Classic at Sandhills Research Center, is finally a senior.

“It’s my last Coaches Classic, my last state championship,” he said last week after winning the Lexington County meet for the second year in a row.Lovelace has been a leader on the Chapin squad almost from the beginning, but his junior season was a banner one. He won the Lexington County meet, the Coaches Classic, the Lake Murray Invitational, the Pelion Invitational and the national Walt Disney World Classic before earning his first Class 3A boys title.

As the only S.C. boy in the Foot Locker South Regional race, Lovelace came within a second of his personal-best time of 15 minutes, 12 seconds and qualified for the national Foot Locker race.

“Winning is a really good thing, but I also just really enjoy the sport,” said Lovelace, who has won several state titles in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs during track season.

That is apparent to his coach.

“He is a student of running, so he has gotten better and better, and more aware of what we are doing in training how to improve,” Jack LeGrand said.

Cross country has taught Lovelace several lessons in the past five years, he said.

“One thing I’ve learned is that everybody is real encouraging to each other. There’s rivalries, but it’s not like you hate the person; you just want to beat him,” he said.

He learned it is possible to catch any lead runner, which pushes him at the end of every race, even when there is no one close behind.

“I actually learned that my freshman year in track, the 2-mile state race, when I was the little guy and I won it on a kick,” Lovelace said. “It’s what made me as competitive as I am.”

There is one last thing Lovelace is looking to learn - what it feels like to win a team title.“Our team is real strong, and I am always pleased with that, whether we’re first or 10th, but I know we can get a title.”

Last year, Lovelace’s win helped propel the Eagles to a fifth-place finish.

He learned something else form that: It is not as much fun being No. 1 if your team is not with you.

Reach Nelson at (803) 771-8419.