LaFayette XC squad strik­ing a bal­ance

Walker County Messenger - - Sports - By Scott Herpst

While some coaches in the area are hav­ing trou­ble find­ing enough run­ners to field teams, es­pe­cially on the girls’ side, LaFayette’s Chris O’Neil has found a for­mula that seems to be work­ing.

As a re­sult, LaFayette is cur­rently run­ning about 20 on the guys’ side and close to 15 on the girls’ side, fairly solid num­bers in an area where more and more girls are play­ing softball and vol­ley­ball each and ev­ery year.

O’Neil said word of mouth about his team has helped, as has his abil­ity to strike a bal­ance be­tween his ultra-com­pet­i­tive run­ners and oth­ers that may not be as in­tense when it comes to run­ning.

“We started in the sum­mer with about 40 kids,” he ex­plained. “We lost a cou­ple here and there, but right now we’ve still got about 35. We have a lot of se­niors, in­clud­ing some who ran last year, but we also have a lot of kids who have heard about how great and how fun cross coun­try is, so we have a cou­ple of se­niors that are first-time run­ners too.

“I try to make it a re­ally fun at­mos­phere and I try to let ev­ery­one know that even though we are a com­pet­i­tive team and our goals are to win and go to state, we also have peo­ple on our team who just want to run to get in shape, have fun and be with friends.”

O’Neil said the re­sult is ba­si­cally two teams un­der the um­brella of one pro­gram.

“We kind of have two sep­a­rate teams that work to­gether, but we also have times dur­ing the week when we kind of split off,” he added. “Some are putting in the re­ally heavy miles and do­ing a lot of hard runs and we have oth­ers out there just do­ing what they can do and try­ing to do their best. We try not to put too much pres­sure on some of those who might not oth­er­wise come out.”

While O’Neil tries to keep things fun, he is also a coach that wants

to win and race well and his boys’ squad this sea­son has a chance to do just that.

LaFayette’s se­nior class is led by the trio of Ma­son Bur­kett, Matthew New­som and Noah Arm­strong, who were three of the Ram­blers’ top run­ners at last year’s Re­gion 6-AAAA meet. Bur­kett was 21st (18:44) and New­som

placed 26th (18:53). Arm­strong clocked in with a 20:41.

“Matthew and Noah and four-year run­ners and I ex­pect a lot of great things out of them this year,” O’Neil said. “Matthew was one of our top two last year and he’s re­ally been run­ning a lot. He’s picked up the pace in the past year. Then you have Ma­son, who is just a se­cond-year run­ner, but he was one of our fastest last year.”

The rest of the

se­niors in­clude Jarod Sit­ton, Kris Witherow, Ma­son King and Dakota Mitchell, along with Jor­dan Stans­berry and Gun­ner Baren­klaw. O’Neil said fresh­man Josh Perea has al­ready shown plenty of po­ten­tial and is al­ready hang­ing with LaFayette’s fastest run­ners in prac­tice.

On the girls’ side, se­nior Kaci Rogers is the team’s top re­turner. Rogers is a past win­ner of the Walker County Fe­male Run­ner of the

Year Award. She ran a 24:20 last fall to place in the top 25 at the 6-AAAA cham­pi­onships.

“She’s our fastest (fe­male) run­ner and she’s been a team leader all four years she’s been with the pro­gram,” O’Neil said. “I’m happy to have her back for her se­nior year and I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to see­ing what she is go­ing to do.”

Lauren Pike also ran in last year’s re­gion meet, while other se­niors in­clude Rylee

Hen­der­son, Sierra Jack­son and Shelby Arey.

O’Neil also sin­gled out sopho­more Hannah Dear­ing, who has im­pressed him thus far.

“She didn’t run last year, but she’s dis­cov­ered run­ning now and she’s look­ing re­ally strong,” he said. “She’s drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak. She’s eat­ing right and run­ning miles on her own.”

The coach said that while he hopes his girls’ team takes an­other step

to­ward catch­ing up with the bet­ter teams in the re­gion, he has high hopes for his boys’ team.

“I think we have a real chance to go to state,” he said. “As long as I’ve been here and from every­thing I’ve heard, LaFayette has never sent a (full) team to state. We’ve got the tal­ent, so if every­thing works out, if we stay in­jury-free and if every­thing keeps go­ing well, we have a chance to be one of the top four in our re­gion.”

The LaFayette High School cross coun­try se­niors in­clude (front row, from left) Jor­dan Stans­berry, Lauren Pike, Kaci Rogers, Rylee Hen­der­son, Sierra Jack­son, Shelby Arey and Gun­ner Baren­klaw. On the back row is Ma­son Bur­kett, Matthew New­som, Noah Arm­strong, Jarod Sit­ton, Kris Witherow, Ma­son King and Dakota Mitchell. (Con­trib­uted photo)

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