Rod Zook was hired in July, just a little more than a month before the Hutchinson Community College cross country teams opened the 2012 season.
Granted, he had been the Blue Dragons’ assistant coach for two seasons, so he knew the runners, but as the head coach, he had little time to mold the program as he wished.
Still, there have been many, many positives to come out of a season that has seen its share of injuries and other obstacles.
The Blue Dragons and Lady Dragons will look for more positive on Saturday when they compete in the Region VI Championships at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park. The women’s race is scheduled for 10 a.m. and the men’s race is set for 10:45 a.m. Weather conditions are expected to be clear and dry the very cool with temperatures in the low 40s.
“We didn’t know what we were dealt because the team was put together so quickly,” Zook said. “They have turned out to be a great surprise, one because they are great kids and two they have worked really hard and have bought into the system right away.
“It’s all come together. It’s been a good season.”
The HCC women will enter Saturday’s Region VI championships as the No. 21 ranked team in NJCAA Division I. The Lady Dragons have been ranked as high as No. 14 and have appeared in 6 of 7 polls this season.
Hutchinson has claimed two invitational championships in 2012 – the Blue Dragon Invitational and McPherson College Lakeside Shootout.
The Lady Dragons are the highest ranked Jayhawk West team in the regional meet. HCC hasn’t won the conference championship since winning the 2001 national championship.
Freshmen Cecilia Lane and Ashlynn Lambert have been Hutchinson’s 1-2 punch at the top of the order for Zook. Lane ran the third-fastest 5K time in HCC women’s history at 19 minutes, 18.49 seconds at the Tabor College Invitational in late September. Right on her heels was Lambert, who ran the 10th fastest 5K time at 19:33.53 at Tabor.
“We have two girls under 20 minutes. We are so spread out” Zook said. “We are about 1 minute, 45 seconds front to back and you can’t have that. It’s got to get compressed. We will see if we have enough bullets in our gun to make it happen.”
The Blue Dragon men have also been ranked in 6 of 7 NJCAA polls, but will enter the Region VI Championships as an unranked team.
Hutchinson has one team championship to its credit at the Blue Dragon Invitational, a strong second-place showing at the McPherson Lakeside Shootout and a solid seventh-place effort at Emporia State.
Injuries have slowed the progress of the HCC men’s team, but it will be at full strength for the regional meet.
Freshman Oberlin Rojas just missed the Blue Dragon all-time Top 25 times with his seventh-place showing at the Emporia Stadium Invitational on Sept. 29 running a time of 25 minutes, 44.80. It was the first time since Mark Menefee in 1998 that a Blue Dragon men’s runner broke 26 minutes. John Murphy III ran a 12th-place time of 26:18.80 at Emporia. HCC’s men finished ninth at ESU.
Zook is confident both will compete for all-region honors on Saturday.
“They are more than capable of running there,” Zook said. “They will have to carry us. They are going to have to be calm and confident. Adapt to what is happening in front of you. It’s hard to tell what the race will be like.”
The regional has six women’s teams and five men’s teams in the NJCAA rankings.
“We are really going to have to run well,” Zook said. “The random element will be the 3-4-5 people and where they come in. We are in for a big, big test this weekend. The Jayhawk is one of the best cross country conferences in the country.”
(HCC Sports Information)