LaFayette XC squad striking a balance
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)