One of the first things Rod Zook did when he was hired as the new Hutchinson Community College cross country coach was take a look at the schedule.
Zook saw nine meets, including Region VI and then the NJCAA National Championships on that schedule. What he saw when the 2011 Blue Dragon men’s and women’s teams got to regionals and nationals were tired runners.
So Zook trimmed down the regular season schedule in hopes of preserving his runners’ legs for the two big meets at the end. HCC will run in five regular-season meets in 2012, beginning on Saturday with the Wichita State/J.K. Gold Classic at Raft Golf Course in Augusta.
“I thought we ran too much last year,” said Zook, who was an HCC assistant coach the past two seasons and has several years of running experience, including international races. “You just can’t race 8,000 meters every weekend. You just have to shut down.
“You can race every week and not train and risk they will get tired of racing, or you train more and race less and that’s the philosophy we are taking.”
The 2012 Blue Dragon men’s cross country team comes off a season where it finished sixth in Region VI and tied for 28th at the NJCAA Championships. Four returning sophomores and six freshmen make up Zook’s first men’s team at Hutchinson.
The HCC women’s team is made up of four sophomores and three freshmen. The 2011 Lady Dragons were Jayhawk West runner-up, fifth in the region and 32nd at nationals.
“The one thing is that our leaders this year are going not be sophomores this year, they are going to be freshmen,” Zook said. “We have been able to bring in, on short notice, a pretty good team. “We had a pretty good team last year and I think we are going to be a little better than last year, but you never know until you throw them into a race.
“We have some freshmen who are going to step in and are already challenging the sophomores who had success last year. That’s a good thing, because it means your team is going to improve.”
Two of the top Blue Dragon runners return from last season in Zach Webber and Isaac Williams. They are joined by returning sophomores Taylor Fry and Gavin Scheibe.
Williams (Pretty Prairie), who routinely was HCC’s first or second runner in 2011 was one of those runners who suffered from fatigue at the end of the season. He playing at regionals didn’t figure into the team scoring. Williams won the Blue Dragon Invitational last season and was fifth at Tabor. His best 8K time was 26:47.20 set at Fort Hays State.
Webber (Hesston) had a top placing of fourth at the Blue Dragon Invitational and his score figured in all but one race. His top time on an 8K course was 28:09.90 at Fort Hays State.
“They may not be our fastest runners, but they are getting in there and are making sure things are being done right,” Zook said. “The group is pretty close. The sophomores realize that the group of freshmen are talented, but they are freshmen. You have to have that chemistry, or things won’t go right.”
Fry (Topeka) ran four times as a freshman. He was 11th at the Blue Dragon Invitational and his top 8K time was 29:45. Scheibe (Beattie) ran in just one race last season and placed 18th at the Blue Dragon Invitational (20:50).
Zook is very high on his freshmen runners, who have already pushed in terms of performance, the sophomores. That, according to Zook, could make the men’s team a solid group in 2012.
The two freshmen Zook is looking at are Orbelin Rojas (Phoenix) and John Murphy III (Wichita) have been strong in preseason workouts. Zook is also counting on Haven native Kevin Marx, who ran at Adams State last season, to be a presence on the course.
“They both have been running terrific in the preseason,” Zook said. “They have been challenging each other and pushing each other really well. We are anxious to see how they react in a race.”
The 2012 HCC women have a strong sophomores nucleus and a pair of freshmen who have caught Zook’s eye in early-season workouts.
Diosha Johnson (Buhler), Rebekah Sweet (Wamego) and Shanna Prescott (Larned) figured in scoring for every regular-season meet and regionals last season, while Taylor Stewart (Hays) figured in all but two meets.
Johnson’s best individual placing was fourth place at the Blue Dragon Invitational. Her best 5K team was 21:04.30 set at both Fort Hays State and McPherson. Johnson was 37th in the region last season and 13th in the Jayhawk West. She was unable to run at nationals.
Sweet was strong throughout the season in 2011. She ran a pair of sub-22 minute races at Tabor (21:10.81) and Emporia State (21:37.90). She ran a 22:37 to finish 45th at regionals.
Prescott made huge strides through her freshman season. Routinely running in the mid 23s early in the season, Prescott ran a season’s best 22:32.30 to finished 44th at regionals.
Stewart’s top 5K time was 22:17.34 at Tabor.
Now Zook adds Andale product Cecilia Lane and Concordia’s Ashlynn Lambert to the mix. Buhler’s Melissa Miller is the third freshman running this season.
“Cecilia is a typical Andale runner,” Zook said. “She is tough-minded and very determined. Ashlynn has been doing really well. We have a lot of sore knees on the women’s side. It’s likely going to be three freshmen and two sophomores who will score consistently this year.”
“I think Cecilia has a really good chance to finish well tomorrow.”
The J.K. Gold Invitational will be ran on slightly shorter courses than usual – the men at 6A and the women at 4K. Unlike in years past, Wichita State will run both the University and college runners together. So HCC will be directly scored against the likes of Wichita State, Kansas State and several other strong area NCAA Division I and Division II cross country teams.
When the Blue Dragons next race, they will get a true test when the teams run at 8K and 5K for the first time this season on Sept. 15. That will be the Blue Dragon Invitational, which will be contested at Hutchinson’s new cross country home, the Westar Energy-Prairie Ridge course, located on Lucille Avenue just west of Prairie Hills Middle School.
After that, the women will compete at Tabor, Fort Hays State and Butler, while the men will compete at Emporia State, Fort Hays State and Butler.
Region VI this season will be at Johnson County before Hutchinson is the 2013 Region VI host at Westar Energy-Prairie Ridge.
(By Steve Carpenter, HCC Sports Information Director)