Head Coach Jim Andrews and his two varsity cross country teams are gearing up for another exciting season, despite the uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic. Their anticipation is made even more palpable because the Lady Bulldogs are the Class 5A defending state champions, the first in the school’s history.
“This is my 13th year at Greenwood and my 11th year with cross country,” said Andrews during a recent interview. “I taught two years at Lavaca and was the boys and girls assistant basketball coach, and [did] one year of track,” explained the Texas native who attended the former East Texas State University before transferring to Arkansas Tech in Russellville.
A recreational runner himself, Andrews ran competitively for one season after high school and currently participates in the occasional 5K or half-marathon. “I still try to run enough to at least stay with [my] junior high runners. I can’t keep up with my high school runners,” he admitted.
The numbers are good right now for the GHS cross country program, especially among the varsity boys and both junior high teams, with over 40 runners in grades seven through nine, and about 20 varsity runners, six of those girls, all returning from last season’s state title team. The Lady Bulldogs lost just two seniors to graduation, Taylor Koeth and Rebecca Martinez.
“It depends on the trend,” said Andrews. “There are years when kids stay with the program all the way up. [But] as kids become ninth graders, they have more choices and other activities to do and other sports that are in the same season. We have done better [lately] and have sustained our numbers. I hope we can keep that trend going. It’s the culture we’re trying to create with our kids.
“[Still], we don’t have as many kids as some other schools in our conference,” he added. “Siloam Springs has about 90 runners. A lot of kids don’t realize they are able to run. That’s their gift. It’s a matter of kids seeing that and getting excited about it. [But] we’ve had some good numbers over the last 10 years coming into the program. I hope we can sustain them.”
Questioned about the qualities required to be a long-distance runner, Andrews said, “We do have particular types of kids that run cross country. We have some gifted, athletic kids that can do just about anything. We have kids with a lot of tenacity and grit. [Kids] that want to achieve certain goals. It’s very much a mental game. Running is fun.
“We don’t [require] a lot of hand-eye coordination,” he continued. “They need to be able to put one foot in front of the other, but we’re not shooting a basketball or catching or throwing a ball. We just want to run as hard and as fast and as far as we can. [So] the mental aspect [of the sport] is huge. We like kids who are smart, eager, and bright, [with] a strong desire to be competitive.
“Distance runners have to be patient. We have to run miles upon miles, and that’s time consuming. These kids have to know that when it’s hot in the summertime and their legs or lungs start hurting, they have to push just a little bit more to get to that next level. And it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight or in a week. I want kids to give me two weeks to get through the pain and the soreness and get to where [they] can run for five minutes, and I promise [they] will get better. They start seeing little goals they can accomplish,” said the coach.
In Arkansas, junior high cross country events require student-athletes to run two miles, with varsity athletes running 5Ks or just over three miles. With those goals in mind, Andrews began working his teams in late spring, though they did their best to remain in shape during the lockdown that began back in March, just as the spring track season was beginning.
“We started when the dead period ended after June 1st,” he explained. “Most kids train four or five days a week. For junior high we’re trying to build them up to where they can run at least three miles without stopping by the end of the summer. With the senior high they are doing five or six days of practice [each week]. We try to run early in the morning so it’s not as hot. The senior high is running between three and six miles a day.
“During the summer I try to meet with them five days a week, but some have run on Saturdays as much as 10 miles. They are trying to put in the work. They want to be competitive for the fall [season]. Every day we have to run or we could start losing what we gained. These kids have worked super hard to get to the level they are right now. We really hope we have this season,” acknowledged the coach.
“I really stress the team aspect of the sport rather than the individual. These kids [must] lean on each other in order to have individual success. Everybody gets scored on how they place, and the top five are added up to give us a team score. [Last year] we had all five of our girls [finish] in the top 22 [at state]. That was our first state championship,” reflected Andrews.
“We lost Taylor and Rebecca,” he said of his two departed seniors, “[and] both of those girls were instrumental. I credit Rebecca for getting Taylor [to come] out, and what can you say? [Taylor] was huge. She set several records. She got a scholarship to [Ouachita Baptist] plus several other offers both in-state and out-of-state. She’s hard to replace. She was our second-best girl last year at state, but we still have a lot of youth to help make up for her [absence]. The girls are very focused.”
Greenwood’s top returning runner is senior Macie Cash. “She ran #1 for us last year at conference and state,” said Andrews. “She’s our senior leader on the team [and] it’s going to be a big year for her. She’s got big goals and big plans, [and] she’s had great focus this summer. She’s looking to get some good [college] offers as well to run at the next level. She’s really hoping to get a division one offer, and I believe it’s possible. She’s probably one or two in the state right now in Class 5A.
“I got to see them all run in the 5K we had here the Fourth of July at Freedomfest, and [Macie] was under 20 minutes, which is something she wasn’t under last year at this point. I believe she’s made some big improvements. I believe she’s faster and has worked on her endurance. She’s always had great drive and confidence and she’s really goal-oriented and works hard. She doesn’t relax until she gets what she wants, and I like that about her,” said her coach.
The team’s only other senior is Madeline Ceisla, the niece of Greenwood schools superintendent John Ceisla. “She is someone who could have a great ending [to her career],” said Andrews. “She’s really worked hard. Her focus is so much better, and I believe she can be a difference-maker on our team. I think she will have a great state meet.”
Junior Abby Coston is also a returning runner from last year’s state champions. “She’s another one that [gives] great support to the team. She is working hard and doesn’t give up, [and] I’ve seen a lot of improvement in her over the summer. She was our eighth [best] runner last year [at state]. I think she knows the pressure is on for her to perform, to maintain the level we’re at [now],” said her coach.
Andrews then talked about three tenth graders who were big contributors last season as freshman and will be counted on heavily this year if the Lady Bulldogs are to repeat as champions. Those super sophomores include Kaitlynne Elmore, Ashley Koeth, and Madelyn Wilkinson.
“Kaitlynne is a strong runner who is gritty and always wants to get better,” said the coach. “She is probably the hardest working girl I know. She works super hard on and off the course and in the weight room. She does a lot of stuff and she’ll have a great season. She was our fifth girl last year [at state] and she can do better this year. She’s still developing.”
Next, Taylor Koeth has moved on, but little sister Ashley returns to carry on the family legacy. “She has the same potential as her sister,” said Andrews. “[Ashley] had a little injury earlier this summer. She hadn’t grown a whole lot, and this summer she hit a growth spurt, which is not always a good thing for a runner. She had to take some time off (for knee pain), but I’ve seen a lot of great things from her. She is going to be great this year. She’s running super hard. I think she’s getting there.”
The third sophomore in Andrews’s stable of young runners is Madelyn Wilkinson. “She’s going to be something special,” said her coach. “She has a lot of talent. She was our #1 best runner last year in junior high, and our third best at state. But this year we’re telling her to be our #2 behind Macie. You just never know which girl is going to come out and blow it away,” he added, a testament to the potential of this group of Lady Bulldogs.
And if the varsity girls need any help or incur injuries, there are plenty of reinforcements to fill the gap, said Andrews. “I have five 9th graders coming out this year, I hope, [and] I know of three that will definitely move up to [the varsity] at the end of the season and make [us] better. We have a lot of good, young talent to help us maintain the same level of competitiveness we had last year.
Maddie Cash, Addie Williams, and Paige Andrews, the coach’s daughter, are the freshmen runners in question. “Those three girls have been very consistent all summer, working hard. [Freshman] Amelia Morgan is going to get a lot better, and [freshman] Meredith Pierce is another girl with talent that can make a big difference on this team. [Freshman] Fallon Van Lare will take a little development, [but] she looks like a great runner. We’ll see something better [from her] over the next couple years,” said the coach. Maddie Cash is the younger sister of team leader Macie.
Asked if the 2020 Lady Bulldogs had another state title run in them, Andrews didn’t hesitate. “Anything can happen, but I believe we [do]. We’re in a really tough conference, but we have the best team we’ve ever had. Losing Taylor [Koeth] was big, but we have girls that can fill that gap. We have a lot of depth on this team and that’s going to be really helpful in conference and state. We should be one of the top two teams [in the state], hopefully #1. A lot of teams will also look to upset us. [But] we are poised to defend our title,” he said.
While not defending a state title, the GHS boys also have cause to hope this season, said Andrews. “We didn’t lose any seniors that helped us in the top five [at state] last year. We lost Josh Merritt, our second-best guy,” speaking of the home-schooled student who graduated early and is now enrolled in college. Merritt was classified as a freshman in 2019. The ‘Dogs did lose senior Vincent Gonzales, who placed sixth for them last year at the state meet.
Nick Lewis, Riley Farr, and Trey Smith are the three senior leaders of this year’s team. “Those three seniors have been with me since they were seventh graders,” recalled Andrews. “They’ve grown up with me and know what’s expected. They all have talent. Nick was our #4 guy last year and we’re leaning on him to be a leader. Riley probably won’t be one of our top five runners, but he’s a great leader as far as support [helping younger kids]. Trey had a good end to last season, so I think he can have a good season as a senior.
“We are still a very young team. [Sophomore] Noah Embrey was our top guy last year and will be again this year. He’s been working hard this summer and put in a lot of time and effort. He’s really motivated to have a good season. I believe the other sophomores, David Ambriz and Gavin Ceisla, will have good seasons [too],” the coach added. Jordan Owens, a junior that ran fifth at state last year, “Can also have a great season.
“The group we have is a young, talented team, and I think we have a chance to be in the top five [at state]. I don’t know that we can win our conference, but we have a chance to finish in the top three,” said Andrews. “We have some historically good teams in our conference, from Lake Hamilton to Mountain Home, that won last year, [plus] Siloam Springs and Russellville. These are all good teams.
“Our guys are strong and healthy,” he continued before listing his top five runners at this point in the pre-season. “Noah, Gavin, David, Jordan, and Nick, with Trey and Riley and a few others on their heels. So we have some depth. We’ll be very consistent this year and they work really hard. It’s fun and exciting to watch them run.”
Andrews also mentioned a new addition to the Bulldogs this season, one that offers some promise. “[Freshman] Christian Wheeler is a new kid that’s moved into the district. He’s a good talent, and someone who can help us. He can make a difference in the future,” he predicted.
His teams began organized practices in June, once they received the okay from state athletic authorities to do so. “We did try to maintain contact with them [during the shutdown],” he said. “We did Zoom calls once or twice every other week and I sent them simple workout plans. [But] they haven’t competed since the first of March (track season). We’re just ready to run against somebody somewhere.
“We’ve had a great summer. These kids needed to be around each other, [and] they [arrived] in good shape. The first day of practice we had 48 or 49 runners, and I’ve never had that many before. We had kids out there every day,” the coach said.
As for scheduling and how meets will be conducted this season under the special requirements mandated by the Arkansas Activities Association and state health officials, Andrews and his fellow coaches are still somewhat in the dark.
“We had some big meets planned for early this season,” he lamented. Andrews had expected to take his Lady Bulldogs to a big meet in Memphis that has since been cancelled. They also don’t know the fate of the annual Chili Pepper race held in Northwest Arkansas. Andrews and his runners are just hoping to be able to host their own meet, which was cancelled last year due to severe weather. “We usually host a pretty big meet, but it may be smaller this year. We just hope we can still put it on,” he added.
Greenwood’s cross country home venue is at Bell Park, which has undergone some renovations that will impact the layout of their running course. There are also questions remaining about the rules for attendance by fans and family members, Andrews acknowledged.
“We don’t have bleachers or stands for fans to sit in,” he explained. “Parents are usually all over the place trying to catch [a glimpse] of their young runner on the course. I don’t know what kind of restrictions we’re going to have as far as parents [attending] meets. We’re [also] looking at staggered starts for cross country meets.”
Masks and social distancing will also be a part of the 2020 season that will be like no other season in the past. “We won’t wear masks when we run, and we’ll try to run as spacious as we can, [but] it’s a challenge. They run in packs. They run side-by-side at times. They finish running beside each other. Who knows what it’s going to be like? We’re [also] not going to have finishing ceremonies. They can pick up medals later or have them mailed. [But] we’re outdoors, so it should be pretty healthy. We just don’t know what it’s going to be like,” admitted the coach.