Lovejoy Director of Running Greg Christensen passed along the Leopards’ cross country program’s instructions Wednesday afternoon at Celebration Park in Allen – get in a smooth four-mile run, then come ready to get some work done on the track Thursday afternoon before Friday’s big departure.
It’s a familiar scene, especially for the Lovejoy boys team. Back-to-back defending state champions, the Leopards will hit the road Friday for Old Settlers Park in Round Rock and a shot at their three-peat.
In the face of several legitimate threats to the throne, Christensen said that experience will serve his program well on a track the Leopards know well.
“It really calms your nerves,” he said. “They really are good at keeping everything on an even keel, and they know what to expect. … To us, really, it’s just one more race, and we don’t want to make it anything bigger than what it is.”
The team be joined in Round Rock by two qualifiers from the Lady Leopards, sophomore Amelia Carothers and senior Carson Hockersmith. The pair finished together at the 5A Region II meet, with Hockersmith earning 15th and Carothers close behind in 16th.
For Hockersmith, the chance to run at state cross country one last time is a special one.
“It was a really exciting year,” she said. “I hadn’t qualified since my sophomore year, so to kind of finish out my career this way is pretty cool. … I’m really proud of all the girls on the team. I try my best to be a leader for all of them and set a good example for all of them, and I hope it works.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carothers, who will compete at the state’s highest level for the first time.
Regardless of her result this weekend, the sophomore said simply qualifying will provide her with invaluable experience as she returns to the Lady Leopards for her junior and senior seasons.
Carothers is emblematic of the year the Lady Leopards had on the whole. While they finished in fifth place as a group at this year’s regional meet, just one spot shy of a team qualification for Round Rock, Lovejoy girls head coach Carly Littlefield said the program took a big step forward this fall.
“It’s been a couple of years of growth. This year was the first year that the girls really understood all the work that they’ve put in and all the time that they’ve put in, and that disappointment after regionals, even though it hurts and it’s kind of a bummer – they really did grow from it,” she said. “We’re going to have some great leadership next year, and I’m really excited about the next two, three and four years.”
Still, all eyes will be on the boys squad and its quest to repeat once again. Standing in the Leopards way are the aforementioned challengers, namely recent 6A drop-down El Paso Eastwood.
Lovejoy’s highest regional finisher, junior Will Muirhead, said the Leopards are fully aware of their path to defeating the Troopers.
“One thing that’s going to be pretty key is to have multiple people in front of Eastwood’s first guy, because they seem to be running really well,” he said. “We consider that our main competition, pretty much. If we can have three, maybe four guys ahead of their one and two, that would help us a lot.”
The feat is certainly doable – at the regional meet, Lovejoy received four top-10 finishes on the boys side (junior Brady Laboret took third behind Muirhead’s runner-up result, senior Brett Pedersen earned eighth and sophomore Trevor Malik took ninth).
Pedersen, prepping for his last cross country meet as a Leopard, is representative of Lovejoy’s team-based mentality.
“The third through seventh guys are what really help win the meet, so I’ve got to be one of those guys after Will and Brady,” he said. “[I’ve got] to lead all the other guys.”
Helping the Leopards along, Christensen said, is that team-wide willingness to play to their strengths and run as one.
“That’s the really cool thing about the boys team and the girls team – they’re so cohesive. They all hang out around each other, and they genuinely all like each other,” he said. “We don’t have like a big, sit-down, rah-rah team meeting before or anything.
“… I think experience over the years on the course really speaks volumes to being able to go into the race with a calm mind and to let their bodies do what they’ve been trained to do.”
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