The enormity of what stood before the McCallie School cross country team began to sink into Blue Tornado senior Samuel Ligon's head and heart as he approached the starting line at Nashville's Percy Warner Park on Saturday afternoon.
For six years as McCallie students, beginning in the sixth grade and continuing through the middle school state title they'd won as eighth graders and those second-place finishes to Brentwood Academy the past two years at the TSSAA Division II-AA state meet, through all that there had always been the security blanket of another year, another shot to add to the school's trophy case, which hadn't housed fresh state championship cross country hardware since 2013.
"I think that was the only time I felt pressure," recalled Ligon on Sunday. "If we didn't win it now, there would be no more chances to do it. This was it. There could be no next year."
So they won it. And by a wide margin, five of them finishing among the top 14, led by seniors John Arrowsmith in second, Dylan Zeller in fourth, Duke Richey in seventh and Ligon in 11th. Junior Benjamin Niehaus was 14th.
But good as that result was, it wasn't what made this McCallie story special.
"What set us apart, I think," Ligon said, "was the friendships between us."
Some of those friendships started as early as age 3, when Ligon, fellow senior runner Brown Hayes and manager Bennett Brock all attended Lookout Mountain Presbyterian's Mothers Day Out program.
"One of my earliest memories is meeting Brown," Ligon said.
Added Hayes: "(Samuel's) my best friend. I remember us riding tricycles when we were in preschool."
But by sixth grade, all the current seniors were together at McCallie, all of them watching the 2013 team win it all.
"We looked up to those guys," Richey said. "We all said, 'That's going to be us one day.'"
Chattanooga Christian senior Edimo Ninterestse won the DII-AA boys' individual title, beating Arrowsmith by 24 seconds.
In the Division I Small Class races, Signal Mountain's boys and girls swept the team titles — the Lady Eagles won their sixth state championship in seven years — and Sequatchie County senior Emma Bradford was second individually. In the DII-AA girls' meet, Baylor School finished third.
Chattanooga Christian coach Daniel Russell was asked how Ninterestse — a refugee of Tanzania who didn't begin running until he was a sophomore — has become so dominant in such a short period of time.
"I think it frees him," Russell said. "He doesn't have to worry about his eight siblings. He doesn't have to think about the world he left behind. He can escape all that for a little while."
As for why this relatively small city with fairly small schools has done so well on a statewide level, Russell said: "The city itself is helpful. Lots of good trails. Lots of good coaches. The kids love racing against each other. Local meets are really fun."
Another example of the city's ability to produce top runners: Former Red Bank star Cole Bullock finished ninth in the recent Southeastern Conference cross country championships as an Ole Miss freshman.
Yet for the seniors on this McCallie team, it's as much about the relationships as the racing.
"They're closer than brothers," Mike Wood said of the team that delivered his sixth state title in 18 years as coach of the Blue Tornado.
Said Zeller: "This is the culmination of our friendship. We've grown together these past seven years, we've grown as people. One day we'll be in each other's weddings."
When those weddings come, they'll no doubt recount the middle school and high school state titles they won, along with the nights they'd visit a Cracker Barrel dressed in blue blazers and bow ties before those championship meets.
Or the afternoons after meets when they'd pile into the nearest Waffle House to eat the All-Star Special, especially this year's senior class of Arrowsmith, Brock, Jaren Dildine, Hayes, Ligon, Richey, manager Addy Rustand and Zeller.
And just what is the All-Star Special?
"A waffle, two eggs, hashbrowns, two pieces of toast and sausage or bacon," Arrowsmith said.
Added Richey with a laugh: "A massive meal."
Or maybe they'll recall last summer, when several of them had gone to Colorado to train and the smoke alarm in the cabin they were staying in went off at 3 a.m, eventually forcing them to take it downstairs and hide it under some blankets because they couldn't turn it off.
For sure, they'll recall all the miles they ran together from sixth grade on, so many that Ligon said they've decided they've logged enough to "have run to California and back and almost back to California again."
As they celebrated their championship Sunday afternoon, a slideshow recounting their journey ended with Ben Rector's touching song "Old Friends," its tag line being "You can't make old friends."
Perhaps to that end, Arrowsmith said of his championship friends of seven years, "the most amazing part hasn't been winning but being together every day."