As the Powell High School cross country teams prepare for their first meet of the season at the end of the month, head coach Cliff Boos will rely on a handful of upperclassmen to provide leadership for the freshman- and sophomore-laden roster.
Of the 27 runners on the roster, 22 of them are underclassmen, with seven on the girls’ side and 15 for the boys.
“We’re a very young team,” Boos said. “We only have three senior boys and one junior girl. We started a cross country program years ago at the middle school, and now these kids that have followed through with it have given us a whole batch of ninth and 10th-graders. But they’re all coming out and continuing with it, which is so nice to see.”
Senior leadership for the Panthers will come in the form of Alan Merritt, Dylan McEvoy and Jayden Yates. Merritt earned All-State honors last year following an eighth-place finish at the 3A State Meet, while Yates also performed well at state, finishing 40th. Both had solid track seasons, and Boos said they’ve carried that momentum into the cross country season.
“Alan [Merritt] has been outstanding for us,” Boos said. “He does a lot of running over the summer, on the weekends, he’s just really dedicated. Jayden [Yates] had his breakout year last year, he should have a super year also. They’re both quiet guys, but they lead by example. We want good, positive people who work hard, try to get better, be respectful of their teammates and the other teams, and that’s the way they are. Couldn’t ask for better influences.”
A host of younger runners round out the boys’ team, including sophomores Joey Hernandez and Tyler Pfeifer, both of whom competed in the state meet last season.
“Joey [Hernandez] and Tyler [Pfeifer] are just young, excellent runners,” Boos said. “They’ll be up there with our two varsity runners. It will be fun to see who can claim the fifth spot and the sixth spot, because those are definitely our top four.”
Cross country has seven varsity spots for each team, with the top five scoring points in a given meet. Having depth on the boys side will make things very competitive for the Panthers.
“Having that depth makes it so good from a competitiveness standpoint, the kids can really push each other and try to stay up with the lead runners,” Boos said. “That’s going to be a real plus for us.”
Participation numbers are a little low for the Lady Panthers, with just eight on the roster; Boos is hoping for two more to join the team by the first meet. Boos said he isn’t concerned with the numbers, however, as the team just needs seven to run varsity, with five scoring points. The Lady Panthers also have a history of doing more with less.
“Interestingly, the last time we won state, we only had five girls [on the team],” Boos said. “We had four girls that were solid all the way, and our fifth girl was a good runner, but she was injured. She did well enough that we ended up winning state that year. You just never know with numbers; it’s the quality that counts.”
The Lady Panthers will be led by junior Kayla Kolpitcke, who earned All-Conference and All-State honors last season, capping her sophomore campaign with a fifth-place finish at state. A multi-sport athlete, Kolpitcke’s exploits on the soccer pitch last spring had other coaches wishing their seasons didn’t coincide.
“I was talking to coach [Scott] Smith, the track coach, and he said, ‘Oh, I wish she [Kolpitcke] would run track just one year, see what she could do,’” Boos said with a chuckle. “I do, too, but she has those other sports, and you gotta do what you want to do. She’s so athletic and so competitive, but she’s also a good team person and a good influence on the younger girls.”
Kolpitcke will be challenged by sophomore teammates Madelyn Horton, Abby Landwehr and Jenna Merritt. All three competed at the state meet last season, and Boos said he expects the trio to build on that success.
“These kids have been running since the seventh grade, they really know what they have to do to be good,” Boos said. “They always want to know their times, and it’s so exciting every week to see how much they improve.”
The cross country team will get to run the Lander and Sheridan courses twice this fall: Once for the second and third meets of the season, and again for the conference and state meets in October. Running the courses twice will be an excellent barometer of how well the runners have improved, according to Boos.
“We’ll run both of those courses at different times in the season, the exact same course twice, with a big span of time in between,” he said. “They’ll be able to gauge how much they’ve improved, and that really makes it nice, too.”
As for expectations for the season, Boos said the goals he sets for the team are to work hard, improve, be respectful to teammates and opponents and be a good person and student. Accomplish all of that, and you’ll be a success regardless of where you finish, he said.
“It’s nice to see in cross country that kids are not so worried about making the team as they are about improving themselves, getting better and helping the team,” Boos said. “It’s never, ‘Oh, I don’t want to help you, because you might take my spot.’ I never get any of that. These kids are all here for each other.”
The PHS cross country teams open their season Aug. 31 at the Billings Invite.