Optimism reigns for Cat runners
With a brand new baby girl at home, De Soto cross country coach Chris McAfee had plenty of reason to be happy as he worked with his cross country team Monday afternoon.
And while his daughter -- six-day old Meghan JoLeigh -- and his wife -- Marcy -- no doubt account for most of those smiles, he said this season's cross country squad contributed as well.
The Wildcats have qualified both the boys and girls teams to the state cross country meet each of the last two seasons, and the 2006 squads could be the best of the bunch, McAfee said, grinning wide.
"Both teams can improve on last year's finish," McAfee said. "We're a year older, a year stronger and a year more experienced."
Neither team has much to prove after the girls took fifth and the boys sixth at state last season, but McAfee said both new runners and old allow him to predict a higher finish for both teams.
On the guys side, it's mostly a collection of veteran runners that could push the team into unknown territory.
Adam Justice was the team's top runner through much of last season, but the senior opted for the soccer field instead of the running trail this season. Senior Tanner McNamara does return, however, and could carry momentum from a strong finish to the 2005 season into another strong showing in 2006.
McNamara missed a large chunk of his junior season with a tough case of the whooping cough. He still made the most of his opportunities and emerged as the regional champion and De Soto's top runner at the state meet, where he finished 17th.
But both McAfee and McNamara said he's only part of the reason for optimism this season. Joining the state medalist at the front of all the training sessions this fall has been fellow seniors Chris Dvorak and Matt Woywod, juniors Jerin Riffel and Lucas Slater and sophomore Colin Jokisch.
"Those guys have been outstanding in practice and they're in great shape," McAfee said. "If they can get down there and medal at state, if we can get five guys in the top 25, we should have a good chance to come out with a trophy."
Despite the happy ending, 2005 was a year of ups and downs for the team. The boys team stumbled in several meets and was criticized for a lack of focus by McAfee at one point, yet managed to win its regional.
By all accounts, those confusing times are behind the team, and competition has been more intense than ever for what has suddenly become a coveted varsity spot.
"It's a mentality switch. Last year we weren't focused and ready for success and this year we are," McNamara said, adding that while this may or may not be the most talented team he's run with in his four years, it is the most focused and the most likely to realize its goals.
"You can just tell it's going to be a really good, special season for us and all the guys want to be a part of that," McAfee said.
An equal amount of optimism flourished on the girls side, but the focus was more centered on what was new rather than what was improved.
Senior Morgan Frehe returns as the team's top state finisher and immediately jumps to the top of the list of the state's best. She finished ninth a year ago and earned her first state medal.
This year she could have company in the top 10. McAfee said senior Lauren Karnitz, 22nd last year, and freshman Carly Stanton could all threaten to push on to the state's elite level.
"We pick up two outstanding freshmen -- the two best freshmen we've ever had in Carly Stanley and Becca Roberts," McAfee said. "You add those two to Morgan and Lauren, and Trish Roberts has just been incredible. Really we have six or seven really, really strong runners."
McAfee didn't even blink when asked if the girls could run with last year's top teams -- Baldwin won state and Eudora was fourth. He acknowledged there's a long time before the state meet -- nearly two whole months -- and that there's many goals to accomplish and meets to conquer before anyone straps on a running shoe and sets across the hills of Wamego at state..
Still, when he talked about all the possibilities, he couldn't keep from smiling.
"For the first time Friday we had everyone together girls wise and it was competitive. It was eye opening for them," he said. "A big part of it's going to be staying healthy.
"This is almost one of those teams where we try not to screw them up."