Waukon girls cross country team returns five letterwinners in 2015 from team that knocked on last season’s State Meet door

Left to right - Front row: Dani Stock, Laurel Keenan, Gabby Marti, Grace Blocker, Alex Marti. Back row: Sydney Ross, Brooke Wasson, Erika Johnson, Emily Hammel, Lizzy Waters, Megan O’Neill. Not pictured: Emily Brown.

The Waukon girls cross country team will return enough varsity letterwinning experience in 2015, five runners, to field a team score, but will face the challenge of combining those veteran returnees with a larger group of underclassmen to move those team scorers up into a more competitive position this season. Adding to that challenge will be the transition to a five kilometer (5K) distance for Iowa high school girls this season, up from the 4K distance from previous years.
“It is going to take a few races to get the girls adjusted to the 5k distance,” second-year Waukon girls cross country coach Brett Egan said. “The girls will need to have some patience as they get comfortable with the change. There was a handful of girls who decided to put in some substantial summer mileage, and I see that paying off for them early. With the transition to a 5k this fall, the strength gained from summer mileage is going to pay off in the long run.”
This season’s five returning letterwinners include the senior pair of Emily Hammel and Alex Marti, junior Grace Blocker and the sophomore tandem of Laurel Keenan and Gabby Marti. They lead a crew of just 12 high school competitors this season, with another 12 young competitors waiting in the wings as junior high runners this season.
“These girls have to set the tone for what is expected for practices and competitions,” Coach Egan said of his veteran returnees. “The success of the team is going to result from them to lead by example by putting in the effort to improve every day.”
In addition to those varsity veterans, junior Lizabeth Waters and sophomore Dani Stock also competed at the high school level for the Tribe last season. First-year team members, junior Erika Johnson and sophomore Emily Brown, will be joined by fellow first-year high school competitors, the freshman trio of Megan O’Neill, Sydney Ross and Brooke Wasson.
Coach Egan knows that a team of 12 runners provides a challenge in itself, but also looks at last season’s team finish just one placewinning shy of State Meet qualification with an even smaller group as evidence of how quality can be much greater than quantity. “The weakness of this team is the size of the squad,” the second-year coach acknowledges. “There is little room for error with such small numbers. Keeping the girls healthy through the early training is going to be particularly important if we want to see success at the end of the season.”
Even though the ultimate goal is team qualification for the season grand finale State Meet in Fort Dodge, Coach Egan knows that the team goal is very much a product of efforts from each individual. “I try to focus on individual improvement throughout the course of the season,” he explained. “We will compete better as a team if the girls continue to improve. I do want the girls to compete better as a team, which we did not do well last year until Districts. The ultimate goal is for the girls to have their best race at Districts.”
The second-year coach and seasoned distance runner is looking to his returning varsity nucleus from last season to help set the pace toward that ultimate goal. His ideal would be to not only have those seasoned veterans show personal improvement, but also improvement among their fellow competitors.
“Last season, we did not have any true front runners, which is pivotal for team scoring,” Coach Egan remarked. “A few girls need to get themselves into the lead group of runners in meets. I think Grace and Gabby are ready to transition into front runners for our team. Alex was a constant in the varsity line-up and she will help us again in her senior year. Laurel improved tremendously at the end of last year, and we will need her to be in a scoring position this fall. I think there are some varsity spots open to girls who are going to earn them. The group of freshmen might have a big impact by the end of the year.”
Coach Egan sees the potential for the right combination of this season’s team members making great strides toward improving the overall program, including a much higher finish in a competitive Northeast Iowa Conference headlined by perennial powerhouse Decorah. “Decorah is an elite program in the state, all the teams in the conference will be chasing them, he said. “I think there is a spot for us in the top half of the conference if the girls are willing to put in the necessary effort.”
The first steps toward that necessary effort in competition will take place Tuesday, September 1 for the Indians at the Oelwein Invitational. The Tribe will then face a week of three meets within a seven-day span, including at Waverly September 8, at North Fayette Valley September 12 and at Starmont September 15.