So when the Dragons take home first place, and Sansone crosses the finish line at eighth overall to receive his medal, there is no hype or huge media presence.
But Sansone doesn’t mind.
He feels no disappointment or disrespect. Instead, he puts the medal in his back pocket and begins thinking about training for nationals. Sansone knows the expectations and obsession that come with Carroll football.
But for him, the expectations don’t matter — cross country is his true obsession.
Everything’s bigger in Texas
In Texas, football reigns supreme. But at Carroll Senior High School, the passion is taken to another level.
Carroll’s football team has won eight state titles, including the one in 2011, and had a 49-game win streak from 2004 to 2007 — records for most titles and second longest streak all-time in Texas. Its notable alumni include Greg McElroy, Chase Daniel and, more recently, Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill.
“Football pretty much drives every single athletic program in Texas,” said Sansone, now a sophomore on the North Carolina men’s cross-country team. “And Carroll fortunately has the most successful football program in Texas right now.”
Dragon Stadium sits over 10,000 people — five times the number of fans that showed up to Sansone’s state championship meet — and some of the playoff games are still played in the Cowboys’ stadium, like they were back in 2011.
“For anybody that’s never watched football in Texas, I think it’s an experience that you won’t get anywhere else,” Sansone said. “We have an inflatable helmet with fog machines and all that, kind of like the pros do.”
He even had a class with Hill.
“When you’re at Southlake, you know that this program is special and the high school is special,” Sansone said. “It didn’t really hit me until I’m sitting here on my couch this year and watching Kenny Hill get recognition on ESPN. I was like, ‘Oh shoot, that kid was in my English class.’”
And while many filled the stadium to watch Hill under the Texas lights on Fridays, Sansone only joined if he wasn’t racing the next day.
Carroll cross-country had its own reputation to uphold.
Running with a purpose
Football at Carroll Senior High has had its success, but in recent years, the cross-country team’s work on the trails has been comparable to the work done on the gridiron.
The men’s cross-country team won the state title three years in a row, from 2011 to 2013, including Sansone’s final two years of high school.
Because of the success, the cross-country team’s talent drew the attention of major sponsors a few years back.
“Midway through my sophomore year, we ended up getting calls from Nike and stuff like that, and we got sponsored by Nike,” Sansone said. “So we ended up getting free gear ever year, kind of like it is in college, but a little bit watered down because it‘s high school.”
But when the cross-country state championships and football playoff game overlapped in 2011, Sansone knew that the team wasn’t going to be greeted with overwhelming praise.
“We had an expectation that people weren’t going to go nuts when the cross-country team won,” Sansone said. “Honestly, we were just focused on what we were going to do nationally after state.”
And after the state championships, that focus helped the men’s team finish runner-up at the Nike Cross National meet in 2011 — only four points out of first place.
Justin Leonard has been coaching Carroll cross-country since 2004. To him, the experience wasn’t surreal at all. With the men’s team qualifying for the last four Nike Cross National meets, it was more of an expectation.
“It’s something that we’ll always look back on and, of course, be a little upset that we didn’t come away with a victory, but at the end of the day, we did everything that we could,” Leonard said.
Sansone finished 22nd overall in the race — the highest of any Carroll runner. Leonard said he saw Sansone’s potential as he entered freshman year.
By the time he was a senior, Sansone had become the team’s captain because of his intangibles and work ethic.
“We don’t necessarily elect team captains. They just kind of rise to the occasion, and that’s what Joe did,” Leonard said. “He was highly respected by his teammates and was one of those kids that showed up every day and got the task done.”
Carolina culture shock
When he first came to North Carolina, one of the biggest adjustments for Sansone was the change in the culture surrounding sports.
UNC football, he said, takes a back seat to Fridays in Texas.
“I feel like some of our high school games get a little more hyped,” Sansone said. “When games (at UNC) are close and down to the wire and everybody’s excited — those are pretty cool. But last year I went to the Middle Tennessee State game, and that was the most boring game I’ve ever watched.”
But it didn’t take him long to realize that college basketball — including the UNC-Duke rivalry — dominates the headlines in North Carolina.
“It’s a little bit uncomfortable,” Sansone said. “I’m getting involved with the basketball stuff, and I love watching the games, but I don’t know how to play basketball. I don’t really know what’s going on, and I don’t even know how you draw up plays. I do know that for football.”
But when it comes to cross-country, Sansone has transitioned well.
As a freshman, Sansone qualified for the NCAA cross-country championships and placed 12th at the Virginia Panorama Farms meet Sept. 28, 2013, which helped the men’s team earn first place.
Tomorrow, he’ll suit up for his first race of his sophomore campaign in Minneapolis for the University of Minnesota Roy Griak Invitational.
Volunteer assistant coach Logan Roberts said that Sansone’s strong high school team prepared him for UNC.
“We knew Joe had a really solid coach in high school with a really solid program, and he was no stranger to quality mileage,” Roberts said. “The intensity of his training didn’t change too much when he got here, which I think made the transition pretty smooth.”
Junior Richard Miller, another member of the cross country team, has become good friends with Sansone in the past year. He said Sansone’s maturity as an underclassman has been nothing short of impressive.
“His leadership and determination from day one has been different than the usual freshman, who has a difficult time adjusting to college,” Miller said. “He came in ready to contribute.”
This year, Sansone said the team is aiming for an ACC title and a top-10 finish at nationals.
And when Sansone runs his first race this season, his heart might still be with Texas, but Carolina will always be on his mind.