Oak Ridge cross country is on right path

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Coach Jason Niswonger explains the day's route to his cross country runners during practice Tuesday at Oak Ridge High School. The Blue Jays' boys team placed second at the Class 1 meet in 2009. (Kristin Eberts)

As Oak Ridge cross country coach Jason Niswonger talked about a seismic shift in his team's attitude over its decade of existence a young girl on the team approached and waited quietly.

With his team running laps around him on the school campus, alternating between sprinting and jogging during the first day of speed drills, Niswonger talked about nights in the past when he couldn't sleep because new district assignments would be announced the next day.

He worried that a bad assignment would mean no trip to state since only the top two teams from each district qualified.

"Now those other teams are saying, 'Well, we hope Oak Ridge is not in our district,'" Niswonger said. "That is a great feeling, and I want these guys to understand that."

After a second-place finish for the boys at state a year ago, and five meet victories, Niswonger wants his runners to carry themselves like winners this season.

Oak Ridge cross country coach Jason Niswonger, second from left, leads runners in a practice lap during training at Oak Ridge High School on Tuesday, August 24, 2010. (Kristin Eberts)

"You can call it a day," he said, turning his attention to the girl, who had said she wasn't feeling well earlier during the practice. "Go get a drink."

The girl didn't budge.

"Uh, no," she said. "I'm going to do however many more you think I should do."

The words revealed much about the state of the Oak Ridge program.

"Today I'll say you do as many as you think you need to do to make the team better," Niswonger said, referring to the number of laps each runner should complete. "If you think you need to do 10, if you think you need to do 20, and they're always doing the upper end of whatever I think they should do. And then I tell them to go home, and they say, 'No, let me do two more.' I've had three girls do that to me today.

"It's contagious. The whole team is like that. I've never seen anything like it."

Niswonger brought up getting better time after time during practice, telling several runners to focus on it as they completed a lap.

"That's my goal -- for individuals, for the team, for myself -- always get a little bit better than you were last year or you were before," he said.

It's not just talk for Niswonger, who ran his first marathon when he was a sophomore in high school. Last August, just before the start of practice, he ran a 100-mile endurance race, which took him nearly 29 hours to finish.

"My friends are into ultra-marathoning now, which I think tells these guys they can't complain," Niswonger said. "If we're running in the rain, if we're running in the hot, whatever, they can't complain."

Sophomore Ethan Seyer, who finished second at last year's district meet, said Niswonger never goes too long without repeating the mantra.

"I'd say every day, and sometimes more in one practice," Seyer said. "At the beginning of the year we was in the gym a lot running and we got to one point where it was just our top seven or eight still running, and he goes, 'I don't care how fast you're going, just run faster.'

"And we was all moving right along, so we all had to push and bust our butts just to run faster and make ourselves better."

Returning experience

Seyer is one of five returners, along with Caleb Elam, Stephen Bolen, Corvin Schoen and Jacob Light, from last year's second-place team that maintained a four-year trend. Oak Ridge had finished 16th out of 16 teams at the Class 1 meet in 2006, 11th in 2007 and eighth in 2008.

Oak Ridge never had won a title of any kind before last year but claimed the district title as well as four others during the season.

Senior Caleb Elam said the high finishes were a morale booster to a team that had come a long way since his freshman year. But he's not reading too much into last year's results.

"It can help us or it can hurt us," Elam said. "It can help us by intimidating the other teams, and it can hurt us by getting us cocky and making us think we're big shots."

The big shot in Class 1 is four-time defending state champion College Heights Christian, which placed three runners in the top four last year. And this season Linn will join Class 1 after finishing fourth in Class 2.

"We may be a better team and get third at state," Niswonger said. "Hopefully we'll be faster as individuals. I would like to have a few less points at state and be closer to College Heights -- let them know we're knocking on their door."

Niswonger said there is a realistic chance his girls team, which placed two runners in the top 20 at state last year, also could wind up on the podium at the end of the year.

But he'll leave that mostly up to them, letting them decide how much better they want to get.

"If I make them run three more [laps], they're not going to be quality repetitions anyway, they're not going to be quality miles added on," Niswonger said. "So most of the time, my top five are there for a reason, and they're going to want to do whatever it takes to make us win."

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