By Susan Harman
Your Prep Sports
It was a rare sight.
West girls cross-country coach Mike Parker, his team in a semicircle in front of him, was discussing what went wrong after the MVC Super meet at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids. He didn’t raise his voice; he didn’t gesture dramatically. But his message was clear: the team, then ranked No. 1 in the state, did not execute its plan and as a result it placed fourth.
The Women of Troy were fourth even though Gabby Skopec and Bailey Nock finished 1-2 individually. That prompted Parker’s talk and some subsequent soul searching.
West came back a week later to win its divisional championship in Waterloo, but only six teams competed and the meet included none of the three teams that finished ahead of the Trojans in the Super meet.
Still, Parker and his team believe they’ve taken the Super meet disappointment and learned from it.
They will try to use that in Thursday’s state-qualifying meet and 10 days later at the state meet in Fort Dodge.
Before each meet Parker gives each runner a plan.
“It’s often different than everyone else on the team. It’s very specific to them,” Parker said.
West High junior Bailey Nock
“He gives us a race strategy before each race, and that’s what we’re aiming for when we are competing,” junior Claire Ronnebaum said.
The plans aren’t specific in terms of time and distance.
“Because you can’t control everything that’s going to happen,” senior Jessie Skopec said. “It allows flexibility, but it just sets you up. It’s more about the beginning of the race and getting position.”
Which was key at Noelridge because of the unusual hairpin turn around a tree about 150 meters into the race.
Cross-country competitors do not wear watches, and the “plan” Parker devises has nothing to do with time.
“All of our strategy has to do with positioning,” he said. “It can have to do with multiple things. Say for our 3-4-5 runners it can have to do with how close they are to Gabby and Bailey. That’s one thing.
“Secondly where they are with regard to the competitors that we know we need to look at throughout the race. That course (Noelridge), if you don’t have a good start, you pay a big penalty.”
Ronnebaum said that doesn’t mean they are looking for specific competitors. It’s more of an awareness of teams that they can’t lose contact with. They can see who’s packed up ahead of them.
“He says ‘Take inventory of where you are,’” senior Olivia Moore explained. “So when you get to the mile, do you need to move up? Are you in a good spot? Make that adjustment so you can get there.”
Parker equips his runners with back-up plans in case something goes awry early. But that didn’t help this time, as the West runners got buried in the big field.
“Having said that, our competitors have a lot to say about our positioning, so I wish it was as simple as you tell our girls what to do and if they do it, it all works great,” Parker said. “Our competitors at the Super meet, I tip my hat to them. They ran really well.”
The Super meet post-mortem took place the next day. All aspects of preparation as well as the race performance were examined.
“They were much more unhappy than I was,” Parker said. “They are competitors, and they want to do well.”
“The message is that we all need to have our individual evaluation of our race and focus on what you need to do to run your best because some of us did not have our best race,” Moore said. “We looked at it to see what we could do better. We wanted to focus on what we ARE capable of.”
Specifically, the start messed up the best-laid plans.
“At Noelridge a lot of people went out fast, and we needed to move up,” Jessie Skopec said. “There were more people up front than what we initially thought. I think we realized we weren’t in the best position, but we just didn’t capitalize on getting there.”
Parker was confident that the team would respond at the divisional meet, and it did. West won the team title, and Skopec and Nock were 1-2 individually. Ronnebaum was sixth and Moore eighth.
“We wanted to prove that West High can battle back from a bad meet,” Ronnebaum said.
Thursday the team heads to the state-qualifying meet in Bettendorf, where it is overwhelmingly favored to win and earn a state-meet berth.
One thing West has going for it is that neither of the next two courses has the idiosyncrasies of Noelridge. But rather than just assume that result was a fluke because of the course, the Women of Troy are determined to learn from it.
“One of the things we’ll do on Thursday is hope to set up a similar plan to what we hope to have (at state),” Parker said. “From the positioning and the depth we will try and execute those things.”
“In general we just need to get out faster,” Jessie Skopec said. “We know we have to do that at state. We just want to be sharper for state. This is the first step.
“For us one of the biggest things we need to do is our 3-4-5 need to be close. That’s what we’re going to need to have is a strong group.”
With several teams expected to compete for the state title the focus on positioning the middle 3-4-5 runners will be acute. Nobody knows that more than the Women of Troy, and they’re ready to show they are quick learners.