PCHS cross-country team hopes to skip ‘rebuilding’ stage
For almost every other Class 3A cross-country team in the United States, the loss of three Division-I talents would be utterly crippling. Coaches would muster their remaining runners and label the next season a "rebuilding effort," hoping to unburden their team of the standard set by its predecessor.
Park City High School head coach Jeff Wyant will take no such approach.
The Miners remain state championship contenders in both the boys’ and girls’ ranks, Wyant said, even as Gillian Gorelik (San Diego), Ali Williams (Hawaii) and Carson Fugal (Air Force) take their first steps onto an NCAA course. The 2010 team features a record 55 total runners and outstanding depth in each graduating class.
"It recruits itself," Wyant said of his venerated program. "It’s almost a guaranteed chance to win a state championship."
Benefiting from pristine training conditions at almost 7,000 feet above sea level, Park City’s cross-country team has had success that is unrivaled for Utah schools of its size. After winning another Class 3A state title, the 2009 girls’ team finished fourth in the Nike Southwest Regional Championship in Arizona competing against the biggest and best teams from five states. The boys’ results have not been quite so prolific, but their runner-up finish to Cedar City in 2009 marked the fourth consecutive year they finished among Class 3A’s top two teams.
Gorelik won the overall state championship last year and Williams was fourth, so the Miners will be hard pressed to surpass their state-record low score of 23 (the lower the score, the better in cross country). The team may also be without last year’s sixth-place finisher, junior McKenzie Snyder, who has struggled to recover from surgery to remove a cyst on her knee.
"It’s a bigger loss than we thought it was going to be," Wyant said. But the loss will likely only be reflected in the team’s standing in the nation, not the state.
Snyder will attempt to run soon for the Miners, but Wyant said it could be late in the season before she reaches her top form. "We’re not going to push it," he said. "We want her to recover and be ready."
Even without Snyder, the Miners’ girls are loaded. Junior Rebecca Cunningham finished third in 3A last season and is the top-ranked returning 3A runner in the state.
And Cunningham might not be the best runner on her team. Sophomore Ali Walker took ninth last year despite having never run competitively before. Now recovered from an injury sustained during last year’s track season, Walker is looking faster than ever, Wyant said.
A long-time soccer player, Walker quit the sport to devote herself completely to running – following the same path as Gorelik. Wyant said the experience of watching her Park City teammates finish 1-5 in the 3200 meters at the Class 3A state track championships led the talented athlete to reconsider continuing her injury-plagued soccer career.
"It made something click," Wyant said. "All I can say is, look out."
Fellow sophomore Emily Schmitt was fifth in Park City’s 3200-meter parade at state championships, while the 2010 varsity team’s only senior, Alexis Lee, was 11th in the 2009 cross-country finals. Wyant also expects freshman Sophie McDonald to add depth to the lineup.
On the boys’ side, Class 3A seventh-place finisher Carson Fugal will be missed, but only in spirit. The Miners recover from his departure neatly with the transfer of West High School’s Ben Saarel, who set a state freshman record in last year’s championships with a blazing time of 16:13.7.
Wyant said the team has only worked with Saarel for a month, but "his talent is virtually unlimited." Saarel had some stress-related injuries from running that caused him to miss spring practice, Wyant said, but the different style of training in Park City should help him avoid those problems in the future.
"Usually you can learn from your mistake with those (injuries)," he said. Unlike many teams in the valley, Wyant said, the Miners try to avoid pavement and run high-intensity, low-mileage practices.
Saarel will get a run for his money from new teammate Connor Gideon, who was 17th at state last year. Wyant believes the lanky senior could make a huge leap in 2010.
"Connor’s had a good summer," Wyant said. "He’s improved a great deal, and he should contend for state."
He hopes Gideon’s example – he failed to make varsity in his first two seasons but has stuck to a rigorous offseason workout regimen – is heeded by the rest of the boys’ lineup. "Training in the offseason pays off," he said.
For further proof, see senior Ray Smith. Smith didn’t make varsity as a freshman, sophomore, or a junior, but after an "incredible" improvement during the past offseason, he now looks to be the team’s third- or fourth-strongest runner. "I guess he just decided to be good," Wyant said.
Rounding out the boys’ lineup are Mason West, 11th last year, and Christian Orr, who took 22nd. Nordic-skiing freshman Kyle Beling also appears to be a contender for a varsity spot. "A lot of those (nordic) kids have had pretty good success for us," Wyant said.
The Miners open at the Premier Invite on Saturday in Tooele. They will compete against Class 5A teams, although doing so will disqualify them from eligibility for awards.
"I want the kids to run against the best in the state," Wyant said.
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