Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wristen: Lansing runners growing up quickly

August 23, 2007

The temperature read 95 degrees as I prepared to dart out the office door on Tuesday afternoon.

It was a few minutes before 3 p.m., and I was heading to Lansing High to do a little research for a column I'd wanted to write for the past two years.

Given the rising temperature and scorching sun, I couldn't help but think this was a bad idea. Still, I was committed. I was going to run at cross country practice. I wanted to see for myself just how improved this year's team was, and the ways I wanted to gauge it wouldn't be as obvious by simply watching.

I know my level of conditioning and threshold for pain. Plus, as a former cross country runner I have a pretty good idea where I stood against teams of previous seasons. That said, this wasn't about seeing where I stack up against this year's team. Instead, it was about witnessing how much the Lions have matured. That's a big deal for a team this young. Don't forget, three freshmen qualified for state last year. The talent is there, no doubt about it.

But how much work did they do in the offseason? How seriously do they take their workouts? Are those who should be leading actually leading? Those are all important questions that I wanted answered.

Tuesday's workout was quarter-mile repeats around the LHS baseball field. It was a workout I figured I could handle, and it would provide the perfect opportunity to see which runners were pushing themselves, who - if any - was slacking off, and how many people already were faster than last year.

I saw what I'd hoped to see.

Of the 31 runners - the most LHS has had out for cross country since the 1970s, 25 ran at 7 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday during the team's summer running program. That's the most off-season commitment that LHS coach Errol Logue has seen in years. During water breaks I asked some of the runners if they noticed any difference after running all summer, and all said yes. The impact was obvious, too, because everybody ran the quarters faster. Rather than being near the front where I would have been last year, I found myself at the middle or back of the pack.

In addition to being faster, it was clear just how serious the runners took the workout. The intensity was evident. One particular example stands out to me. A team's top seven runners compose the varsity roster, and on one of the final quarters I pushed myself into the No. 7 position. Keeping track of my position, I held my ground and pushed forward. Maybe 10 strides from the finish, junior Matt McCurry - a returning varsity runner - pulled side-by-side with me before surging ahead and denying me a top-seven finish. I don't know if he was aware of the positioning or if he simply wasn't going to let me beat him, but that's the kind of toughness the Lions need from him this season.

I witnessed a similar fight in other runners, and that's something that's been a long time coming for this team. The most gifted runners are at the front of the pack - where they should be.

For the boys, it's sophomore Brandon Craig running in the lead on every quarter. Senior Griffin Davis is hot on Davis' heels and takes his positioning seriously. In fact, after getting a late start he sprinted past me and others because he understands that's where he should be. Both Craig and Davis should be among the premier runners in the Kaw Valley League, and they're practicing like it.

On the girls' side, it's sophomore and 2006 KVL runner-up Lauren Jaqua, followed closely behind fellow state qualifier sophomore Abbey Lozenski and newcomers Sarah Nielsen and Kate Meara.

After about 10 hard quarters, a much-needed water break and a few more laps to cool down, the runners head home and I limp to my car. I've seen what I hoped I'd see. My legs hate me for this little experiment, but my mind is satisfied. It's clear that this team gets it.

The parts are in place for this to be the best boys team in more than a decade, and for the first time in five years the girls have the depth and talent to contend for a league title. Those are legitimate expectations, and they're expectations that the team has earned through hard work, commitment and toughness.

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