Spain Park cross country
Cole Dillard, seen warming up for a summer training session at Veterans Park, is the top returner for the Spain Park High School boys cross-country team.
Spain Park High School head cross-country coach Michael Zelwak said he wants his boys team to enter the fall with a chip on its shoulder.
In 2015, a young and inexperienced Jaguars squad weathered a turbulent season that culminated in a last-place finish at the Class 7A, Section 3 meet. The gloomy performance extended Spain Park’s absence from the state championship to a third straight year.
“We had a young group of guys that were talented and they worked hard,” Zelwak said, “but I think they just learned what competitive high school cross-country is like.”
This fall, the Spain Park boys will aim for improvement as they draw motivation from the past. Led by juniors Cole Dillard and Andrew Gedgoudas, along with sophomore Jacob Warner, the team now boasts a more experienced roster that returns its top 10 runners.
“We have a lot of guys that are really close, and I think that’s going to be their strongest point,” Zelwak said.
Dillard emerged as the team’s front-runner last fall, recording a 5K personal best of 16 minutes, 53.74 seconds. He is the lone returner to have broken the 17-minute barrier, though a slew of teammates have come close. Junior Morgan Becker holds a personal best of 17:04 and Warner has run 17:05. The rest of Spain Park’s top seven from 2015, including Gedgoudas, have posted times in the 17’s.
Collectively, Zelwak said he expects to have 12 runners capable of contending for his team’s top five spots on any given day.
“The one thing that’s separating them is who’s going to be tough enough,” Zelwak said. “In the races, they need that toughness and that confidence. That’s really going to be the difference between last year and this year.”
Zelwak said the process of developing those key mental traits has already begun. To date, Zelwak said he has incorporated a strength and conditioning component into his team’s training regimen while also placing an added emphasis on hill workouts.
“I want them ready to fight,” Zelwak said. “[I want them] sort of saying, ‘Hey, we were young last year and we took our lumps, but we’re ready to go and we can run with anybody and we’re ready to prove it now.’”
The Spain Park girls find themselves in a slightly different position.
Behind the consistent efforts of All-State performers Sarah Sims McGrath and Zoe Shore, the girls team charged to a third-place finish at the 2015 state meet. But now McGrath and Shore, along with fellow top performer Emily DiMercurio, have graduated.
Their departures leave senior Isabel Caddo and freshman Holland Lidikay as the only returners from the team’s top six.
Last season, Caddo ran 18:54 and Lidikay ran 19:26 for the 5K distance. Zelwak said he expects sophomore Kristen Hopkins to join seniors Alyssa Gaston, Lily Pudlik and Mary Katherine Tedder as key contributors who can fill holes left by graduation.
“I believe in them, and I know what they can do, but that doesn’t mean anything on race day,” Zelwak said. “They have to believe it, and I really think that they can go out and really surprise some people.”
The Spain Park boys and girls cross-country teams will kick off the 2016 season at the Montevallo Early Bird Classic on Friday, Aug. 26.