Tush, Vitt pulled Lady Bobcats from depths
Jeff Venema doesn't sugarcoat where the Basehor-Linwood High School cross country program was when he took over in 2003.
"In essence, there was no program," Venema said. "I used to argue that we were the worst cross country team in America at that time."
Three seasons later Venema is the head coach of a girls squad that just finished its season ranked among the top 10 class 4A teams in Kansas.
He's gone from barely fielding a whole varsity and junior varsity roster, to having arguably the state's deepest 4A girls team. How did such a monumental change happen so fast? It started back in 2003, when Venema picked out two freshmen, Megan Tush and Amanda Vitt, that he thought he could build a program around.
"I had both girls in middle school basketball and I could see they were the kind of kids that I wanted to have around," Venema said. "Excellent students, hard workers and talented athletes."
Fortunately for Venema, neither Tush nor Vitt was a huge fan of volleyball, the other fall sport offered to girls. When he asked Tush about coming out for cross country, she signed on almost immediately.
Vitt was a little harder to convince.
"I was going to play volleyball," Vitt said. "Then Venema came up and asked me if I wanted to run cross country. I said I didn't know, but then he said Megan was doing it."
That was all it took. The longtime friends, who used to finish near the front of their distance races in middle school, became the bedrock of the Lady Bobcats.
Tush was basically a natural from the start, qaulifying for the state tournament as an individual in her freshman season. Vitt started slower, but worked hard every practice and soon caught up. Their freshman year the team won a total of 11 medals. Not great, but it was a start, especially considering the low number of runners.
When Vitt and Tush were sophomores, reinforcements arrived in the form of freshmen Emily Lackner and Caren Chellgren, another pair of dedicated runners who gave the varsity team an instant boost.
"After our freshman year, when Caren and Emily got up here, I knew we'd be a lot better," Tush said.
They were, earning 30 team medals in each of the next two seasons. Last year, when Tush and Vitt were juniors, the girls team even took first place at one meet. Then, this season, everything fell into place. Their decorated team, which already included Tush, Vitt, Chellgren, Lackner and junior Katelynn Witt, was bolstered by a couple of newcomers. Ashtynne Farris came out for the team for the first time as a sophomore and cracked the varsity seven. Kayla Peterson, a freshman, not only made varsity, she shot right into the Lady Bobcats' top three.
The Basehor-Linwood girls suddenly had so much depth that potential stars like freshman Megan Rehm and junior Maggie Schroeder were relegated to the junior varsity races, which they dominated.
The Lady Bobcats exploded for 80 team medals, five first place finishes and their first Kaw Valley League championship. The cross country revival at BLHS was complete. Tush and Vitt, along with fellow senior co-captain Stephen Dyer, had presided over the most successful season of girls cross country that BLHS had ever seen.
"They showed through their hard work, and with no complaining, what it takes to be successful in this sport," Venema said. "Their experience, their pride and their achievements really led the way for us."
The Lady Bobcats ended their season just short of qualifying for state, after being placed in a regional with three of the state's top six teams. It was disappointing for Vitt and Tush, but both said that seeing how far the team has come helped ease that pain.
"It feels really good to know we've helped build the program," Tush said. "Hopefully it doesn't end with us. I'd like to see it continue to grow."
While the Lady Bobcats plunge ahead without them next year, both Tush and Vitt plan to keep cross country in their college futures. Vitt is considering running at Pittsburg State, while Tush is still weighing her options. She was recently invited to attend practice with the team at Mid-America Nazarene University.
Venema is now left with a deep crop of solid returning runners. They've been shown the path to a league championship, but Venema knows repeating might be difficult without his two trailblazers, Tush and Vitt.
"I know that I'll be thinking of them," Venema said. "And wishing they were still with us."