Cross country runners for both Melissa and Anna have been piling up the miles this summer in preparation for the start of team practices on Aug. 5. That’s when the training began in earnest and coaches started to see what kind of kick their teams will have in 2019.
Anna’s first meet is slated for Aug. 16 at Carrollton’s Hebron High School and Melissa’s season gets underway Aug. 24 at Commerce High School. Providing stiff competition in District 11-4A again this year are Celina, Sanger, Aubrey and Gainesville.
Melissa’s boys and Anna’s girls won district titles last season and both teams earned trips to the state meet in Round Rock. For those unfamiliar with the sport, the UIL cross country race distance for Class 4A girls is 2 miles. For boys — regardless of classification — it’s 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles.
Key dates for 2019 are:
Oct. 17 - District meet at Celina
Oct. 28 - Region II meet at Grand Prairie
Nov. 9 - State meet at Round Rock
After recent early morning practices, we spoke with the Anna and Melissa head coaches about last year’s campaigns and their prospects for this season. Each squad returns solid talent, among them state-qualifiers and a state gold-medalist.
Last year, the Cardinals won a seventh-straight district title, reached the state meet as a team for a fifth-straight year and counted the state record-holder among their talented ranks.
Note to District 11-4A: Everybody is back.
“The goal this year is to win state,” head coach Kelley Pitzer said. “There’s no if ands or buts about it. We’ve said that the last couple of years and we’ve come up short. They don’t want to come up short anymore. … If we can have several boys in the Top 15 at state, we can win it. With their work ethic and what they’ve put forth so far, they’re showing that they want to.”
Certainly, claiming an eighth-straight district championship and winning Region II this time are also on the agenda. Pitzer added, “I would like to have two or three kids at district in the Top 5. That would set the stage for something really special this year. And I think we’ve got the kids that can do it.”
The Cards finished sixth at state last year and posted a strong second-place showing at regionals.
Melissa’s Judson Greer, the current Class 4A state-record holder, returns for his junior year. Greer set the new 4A mark last fall with a time of 15 minutes, 2 seconds. He also won state track gold medals last spring in the 3,200 and 1,600 meters - setting a new 4A state record in the 3,200 as well.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Pitzer said, “but he’s also a phenomenal scholar. He wants to be the best at anything he puts his mind to. Second place is not an option for him. … He’s going to be a name that people are talking about.”
Having a state champ Greer on the team, Pitzer noted, has helped build the Cards’ program. “Kids want to come out and be a part of something like that,” he said. “That’s a huge plus.”
Another key returning runner will be junior Lucas Tauch, who finished third at regionals last year in the 170-strong field.
Then Tristan Weaver, Jayden Smith, Carson Ross and Charlie Burk have been also been working hard this summer, Pitzer said. “It’s going to be a fight for those three or four spots because those guys really want it. Looking at the squad this year, especially after seeing where they are at this point, we’re looking pretty solid as a team. Everybody has … put in a lot of miles. They’re fundamentally ready. They’re foundationally ready.”
Pitzer emphasized that the Cards’ approach is, above all, team-based. “Obviously, you’ve got kids like Judson and Lucas that are really fighting for those top spots. But it’s ‘team.’”
It’s too early, Pitzer said, to gage the district race. “We obviously haven’t seen any times. You know who’s returning from the other schools and you know what their times were last year, but some kids improve, some kids decrease. It’s always hard to tell until about the second or third meet of the year.”
The Lady Coyotes, ranked among Class 4A’s Top 10 teams for a time last year, are coming off their fourth-straight district-championship season.
“It is getting harder and harder every year,” third-year head coach Scott O’Connor said. “We know it’s not an easy feat. Our district is tough and it’s getting tougher every year.”
Anna losses to graduation include Skyla Mackey, Madison Hemenway and Jillian Vargas. “Skyla and Madison were awesome,” O’Connor said. “They were really beneficial to us on the varsity program.” Both girls earned track scholarships - Hemenway with Hardin-Simmons University and Mackey with Southwestern Assemblies of God University.
While Vargas was not a varsity runner, O’Connor noted that “her effect was felt on JV. She was one of the most integral pieces of our program.”
After claiming last year’s district title, the Lady Coyotes went on to a program-best second-place finish at regionals then to state as a team. O’Connor said getting the team back to state after just missing out in 2016 and 2017 was “the pinnacle of our season. … We had not just one runner that was a standout, dropping crazy times. We had five, six, seven solid runners that came together as a team and ran really well. We had a lot of girls step up.”
Among those who stepped up last year and return this season are senior Aimee Landers, junior Caroline Boykin and sophomores Audra Wells and Abi Katke.
O’Connor noted that Landers cut her personal-record time last year by about a minute. “She became our No.1 or No. 2 runner, consistently. She got seventh at regionals and qualified for state, individually. That was such a huge thing for our program.”
Boykin turned in the Lady Coyotes’ top time at state last year, completing the course in 12 minutes, 26.74 seconds for 22nd place in the 147-strong field. Landers finished near the top half of the field with a time of 12 minutes, 53.33 seconds. Overall, Anna’s girls finished 13th at state.
Landers was Team MVP last year and Boykin won it the year before as a freshman.
“Honestly, to pick between those two, it’s tough,” O’Connor said. “They’re both great runners. Then with Audra there, I really don’t know where their times are going to drop to this year. The sky could be the limit. … Audra’s had a really good summer. She’s moved up and has really been hanging with Caroline and Aimee.
“Their physical capabilities haven’t been reached yet. … We want to get them under 12 minutes. But getting out there and competing and running with the lead pack is something that’s going to be really important to them. Those girls are going to be getting primed and flying soon.”
Returning seniors Emily McDonald and Genesis Palos will provide solid depth to the team, O’Connor said, adding that newcomers Adrienne Newman, Carly Fullenwider and Jordin McGuire have a shot at contributing on varsity.
“Cross country, you never know,” he said. “It’s all about times. Some girls may bump some other girls out.”
As for goals, O’Connor takes a first-things-first approach. “Each week we try to focus on something other than just winning. We try to focus other competition, how we run the middle of our race. We have little goals to try to build to our bigger goals. Obviously, our bigger goal is we want to win districts again - on varsity and JV. If you don’t get out of districts, your season’s done.”
While Lady Cards head coach Clay McCarter is plenty glad to have three-time state-qualifier Alison Kocsis back for her senior year, he’d like to make her possible fourth trip south a bit more enjoyable.
“I’m ready for Alison to have teammates with her in Austin,” McCarter said. “I would say that’s probably the No. 1 focus of the year.” Noting that it’s time, he added, “Two out of the last four years we’ve sent a team to the regional meet and we’ve had one runner get out [to state].”
Getting the whole team to state - and runners onto the medal stand – are, of course, always ultimate goals, McCarter said.
A good sign for the Lady Cards is they lost no one to graduation last spring. Among those returning runners who could go far are junior Madeline Graham and sophomore Tori Tauch, who missed most of last season with a foot injury.
“Madi’s had a really good summer - I would say probably the best summer of the three years she’s been in high school,” McCarter said. “Losing Tori to injury, that was a big setback. She was in really good shape coming into the year. I think had she stayed healthy she would have been a for-sure state-qualifier.”
Then there are sophomores Madeline Kuehler and Katelynn Wagner, as well as freshman Abi Bass whom McCarter said has potential to medal at state. “She ran like 5:07 in the mile as an eighth-grader. If she’s stays healthy, she’s going to turn some heads.”
McCarter also lists Madison Aldredge, Abi Chaloupka, Kenzie Clipperton and Lily Dye as freshmen who could have immediate impact. “All of those girls have had a good summer of training, especially for freshmen athletes,” he said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. They got in a lot of miles. I expect several of them to be varsity-caliber athletes and contribute.”
The Lady Cards claimed fourth at last year’s district meet with Kocsis the only runner to reach regionals and Tauch out with injury. “[Last year] was rewarding and we had success,” said McCarter, now into his fourth year at the helm, “but we had injuries at the wrong times. It was one of those fluke deals where I think we left at least one person home from the state meet.”
As for the 2019 district race, McCarter said was tough to say. “Celina’s always got a couple of girls that are going to be right there in the mix - Hannah Thompson and Adele Clarke. They’re just really great runners. I know Anna graduated several girls this year that were kind of key players for them, so I don’t know what they’re going to look like. I know Coach [Scott] O’Connor always does a good job with them. … I expect Anna and Celina to be probably our toughest district opponents. And Sanger is one of those schools that is traditionally a good distance-running school.”
The Coyotes finished fifth at the district meet last year, but that was a step up from the year prior - and along the way they piled up lots of personal-record times. Now, sixth-year head coach Matt Ellis and his squad will seek to keep that momentum building.
“Expectation-wise, we want to compete to get to regionals,” he said. “We were much closer last year than we had been in years past. … I think this year we have a little bit more consistency at the top. That’s not necessarily saying anything about kids in the past. It just means we have more consistency in the program. We have kids that have been in it since freshman [year], now sophomores, now juniors, that are kind of leading the group this year.”
Last year’s Team MVP, Mason Massingill, graduated last spring and now runs for John Brown University in Arkansas. “He was just a consistent runner. … I believe at every meet he was our highest finisher. Losing him will hurt but I think we have some kids that will step up in that role.”
Ellis will look to lone senior Mike Acevedo to provide leadership this fall along with promising juniors Bryce Wetzel, Josh Clarke and David Hernandez.
“Since his freshman year, [Bryce] has dropped several minutes off his time,” Ellis said. “And he’s running really well this summer.” Clarke, he said, “looks great, physically,” and had also cut his time. Ellis noted that Hernandez joined the program just this year and has looked “really strong.”
The Coyotes expect some freshmen and sophomores to contribute as well.
“Our district is tough, just like on the girls’ side,” Ellis said. “Three teams that made it out of our district finished Top 5 in the region.”
Melissa, Celina, Sanger and Aubrey will be strong again, Ellis noted, though Aubrey lost a top runner to graduation, which might crack the door a bit for the Coyotes. The Chaparrals nipped Anna by just two points at last year’s district meet.
Said Ellis, “The main focus this year compared to past years is really just getting their mileage up, more than any specific training towards attacking hills or anything.”
Consistency, he added, will be crucial for his charges to advance in the district standings. “And making sure they’re doing things right in training but also outside of training; making sure they’re getting rest and eating properly - those things they can control to help us be more successful.
“They look like they’re taking care of themselves better, so I think that’s already started. Hopefully they’ll maintain it.”