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 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 squad | lee's summit west mo girls
by Dave Devine, DyeStat Senior Editor

When the DNA for your nascent HS cross country program includes the coaching mind behind Missouri prep stars like Joe Falcon, Amy Wiseman and Matt Tegenkamp, you're certainly off to a good start.  That was the case at Lee's Summit West in the suburbs of Kansas City MO, which opened in 2004 and promptly won it's first conference championship in girls' cross country that fall. The first few years, the team was helmed by Dave Denny, longtime mentor of Missouri preps, including the aforementioned standouts.  Denny led the Lady Titans to their first state title in 2007, then handed the reigns to Coach Jesse Griffin, who hasn't missed a beat.  Griffin led his team to a repeat state title in 2008, followed by an appearance at the NXN Midwest Regional, where they went in ranked MW#4 and ended up fifth.

The Titans have only gotten tougher in 2009, currently ranked US#11 and led by a potent 1-2 punch of Chelsey Phoebus and Liga Blyholder, they were runners-up to HL#1 Dowling Catholic at the Roy Griak Invite by a slim 6 points, and romped at the Kansas City Metro Champs by over 100 points.  DyeStat Senior editor Dave Devine caught up with Coach Griffin and senior star Liga Blyholder as they prepared for this weekend's Missouri State Meet and an opportunity at a historic third-straight large school state title. 

Coach, congrats on your latest win at the Class 4 Sectional!  It's been quite a season so far for the Lee's Summit West girls.  As you look back at how things have gone, can you point to some of the top highlights, maybe areas where there have been bumps in the road, and perhaps the point at which you realized you might have a special team in 2009?

Coach Jesse Griffin (right): Thank you!  This has been a year that we have continued to make progress as a team and also each girl as an individual performer compared to 2008.  I knew going into this year that we had some talented individuals and thought there was potential for a special season.  In cross-country it is not just about having a few great runners, but more about cohesiveness and being on the same page as a team.  I thought we kind of cruised through the first couple meets of the season, but still had not really found that identity which makes the team really special.  Our third meet of the year we ran in Minnesota at the Roy Griak Invitational.  Liga Blyholder has been my number two runner the entire season and is one of the leaders of our team.  She was running in about 3rd or 4th place with 150 meters to go and collapsed.  Through this disappointment I think our team has become much closer and developed the identity that we need as the state meet and NXN regional approach.  I always believe things happen for a reason, and although this was a temporary setback, it has taken Liga and our entire team to another level.  I guess you can say they found their identity to a certain extent in Minnesota.  Upon our return from Griak we really had a breakthrough race, placing 4 girls in the top 5 at the Kansas City Metro Championships the following weekend.  I am excited to see what they can do in the next few weeks.

I read where there have been only six teams in Missouri large school history to have repeated as state champions, and no team has ever "three-peated."  After wins in 2007 and 2008, can you talk about the goal of a third-straight state title, and how that has fit into the planning for the year?  Are there things you've done differently this year, or talked about as a team, in preparation for a shot at an historic achievement like that?

Coach Griffin: The one word that best describes the girls I coach is humble.  They work extremely hard and take one day at a time throughout the season.  We honestly do not talk about the state meet that much throughout the year, and really just try to focus on the next meet coming up.  The girls know the prestige of winning a third straight state title but they also know it does not come without sacrifice and taking care of business throughout the season.  Each time they compete it is an opportunity to learn.  This season has been very successful but we have still had to overcome some obstacles along the way and in my opinion it has defined the team we are today.  We had a small setback losing to a very good Dowling Catholic team at the Roy Griak Invitational by 6 points.  I was very proud of the way our girls handled the disappointment of that competition and in some ways they became much more of a “team” and this has shown up in the results ever since.  I think running at a big invitational like Roy Griak really helps the girls to focus on the big competitions at the end of the season.  Another tough time this season was the week of our district meet, where we had 4 out of our 7 varsity girls suffer through flu during the week.  Once again I think those types of situations have caused them to become closer and step their game up just a notch.  I tell them that there is no amount of money in the world that a person can pay for the feeling of seeing hard work pay off like it does when you win a championship.

Liga, your team traveled to Terre Haute, Indiana, last fall for the NXN Midwest Regional, and ended up fifth (but only 10 points from fourth).  Was that race a pretty good measuring stick for you, in terms of how you stack up against some of the top teams in the region (and the nation)?  What things did your team take from that race which might have prepared or motivated you for the 2009 season, and a chance to potentially compete for a trip to Portland?

Liga Blyholder: Aside from Roy Griak, NXN Regionals was the first large-scale meet our team had ever faced. We weren’t sure what to expect and the meet served as a sort of learning experience. Although we didn’t perform our best, NXN Regionals, like any meet of that magnitude, taught us some important things. Competing at that high level is different than inter-state meets and seems to put things in perspective. I think these types of meets really prepare you for what’s to come in college and the next stage of your running career. The experience we gained at Regionals helped prep us for future meets like NONs last spring and this year’s Regionals. Now we are familiar with the course, the competition, and the atmosphere, which gives us a little more confidence than last year as we approach the race. The ability to travel to Indiana and compete in a great race like Nike is an awesome opportunity that the team is incredibly thankful for.

Coach, I saw on your team's website that you've won a Suburban Conference title every year since the school opened in 2004.  That's some pretty good success right out of the gate, and some amazing success in a short span, considering the achievements in the first five years. What's the history behind the school and the team?  Was it a situation where a district split and you inherited some talented runners from an existing school, or did the school start completely from scratch?  Have you been the coach since the beginning?  And are there specific things you can point toward which have created an atmosphere of success in such a short time?

Coach Griffin: Lee's Summit West opened its doors in 2004 as the third high school in the district.  The school is located in the Southeast suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri.  Dave Denny got the program off the ground with the girls winning their first conference campaign and qualifying for the state meet in Class 3.  Since the school opened we have won every conference meet through this season.  Our school has significantly grown with an enrollment of nearly 1700, which caused a move to Class 4 in 2006.  In 2007, Lee's Summit West girls won the first large class (Class 4) state championship in school history. 

The girls currently on the team have all come up through our feeder middle school and most of them at one time or another played soccer or other sports.  A few of the girls ran cross-country in middle school but not all of them.  Coach Denny retired from the district at the conclusion of the 2007-08 school year.  Last year, I stepped into a well-established program and was able to keep it going in the right direction.  Following a coaching legend like Dave Denny (high school coach of Joe Falcon, Amy Wiseman and Matt Tegenkamp) is not the easiest task, and it was my job to help the program get to the next level.  I felt the girls I inherited in 2008 continued to improve a lot from 2007, and had a solid year in which we were able to win a 2nd state championship in a row and place 5th at the NXN Midwest Regional.  The girls have continued to make huge improvements from last year until now, and are definitely running at a higher level.  The trip to Indiana last year and our trip to Greensboro for Nike Outdoor Nationals has really exposed them to competition at the national level and motivated them to work very hard in the winter and summer months.  The hard work seems to be paying off.  I feel like in my second year as head coach I have the girls going in the right direction.

Liga, your squad had a very close loss to HL#1 Dowling Catholic at the Roy Griak Invite earlier this season.  What was the feeling or vibe of the team after that meet? Were you psyched to come so close to beating Dowling Catholic, disappointed at the outcome, or something in between?  What was the effect of that meet in terms of motivating the team or helping you refocus for the remainder of the season?

Liga Blyholder: We were excited to race in Roy Griak again this year after a very close second last season. Unfortunately for a couple of us, the race didn’t go as we planned, and the team standings reflected that. Sometimes we set high goals for ourselves and when they aren’t reached we get a little disappointed. I think, despite that, we have to be pleased coming so close to a team like Dowling Catholic. The meets that don’t seem to satisfy you really teach you the most, get you refocused, and thirsty for the next race. Again, we are very fortunate to be able to travel to national meets and gain these experiences and lessons we couldn’t learn elsewhere.

Right now your team is ranked #11 in the country by DyeStat, just outside the top 10.  Are rankings something you all spend much time thinking about, or do you mostly go about your races and let the rankings fall where they may?  Is there a sense or awareness at your high school that the girls XC team is successful on a national scale?

Liga Blyholder: Rankings are a great motivational tool, but not emphasized on our team. It’s really cool to see our team gain national recognition after the hard work we put in, but our goal is to improve for ourselves. I think the basic belief on our team is that if we go into a meet and do our best, the rankings will reveal that.

At our high school, like most schools, football sort of overshadows other fall sports. Students are aware that their cross country teams are successful but I don’t think they know that we can compete at the national level.

A lot of coaches talk about "coaching the team they're given," in the sense that some years you get an outstanding individual followed by a pack of 4, some years it's an interchangeable pack of 5 or 6, some years more like a 1-2-2 breakdown.  This year you've got two outstanding frontrunners in Chelsey Phoebus and Liga Blyholder (left).  Can you talk about the approach to coaching this year's group, how those two might key off each other, and what the training looks like with the talent you have?

Coach Griffin: Chelsey and Liga have been a great 1-2 punch for what we have been able to accomplish up to this point in the season.  Liga came out for cross country last year as a junior for her first season and just basically got her feet wet a little bit and went through a learning process.  She had run the 400 and 800 in track, but never trained year-round because of obligations to basketball and softball.  Chelsey had a solid sophomore cross country season, but Liga and her were not really close to each other in race ability in 2008.  As we went into the track season they both continued to improve with Liga running 4:54 in the 1600 and both girls running under 11:00 in the 3200.  I had always told both of them back in the springtime that they could do some pretty special things if they would find a way to work together.  They were essentially in different training groups during track season so they would do an occasional race or workout together, but nothing consistent. 

For the first part of our cross-country season this year both girls seemed to be on different pages when it came to workouts and meets until around the Roy Griak Invitational.  From that point on they have really helped each other out in workouts/races and are now starting to take things to a higher level together.  My #3 and #4 girls (as a side note, Johanna Kleinsasser, who's run as my #3 girl most of the season, is the niece of US Olympian Ruth Wysocki) also have a similar approach to the season as well as my #5, #6 and #7.  An interesting development has finally started to happen with our #5 starting to drift up towards the middle group which will help in the big meets ahead.  Training as a whole has gone very well this year.  Every single girl up and down the line has improved significantly and is starting to develop great aerobic capacity, which is showing up in race results.

What are some of the coaching principals or training tenets which serve as building blocks of the Lee's Summit West program?  Is there a particular workout or measured effort you have the girls do which always lets you know where they stand in terms of fitness or race readiness?

Coach Griffin: I have been blessed to learn over the years from so many great coaches.  After obtaining my USATF Level II certification in endurance, many of the principles of sound distance training I have learned seemed to make more sense.  I try to continually learn and perfect what my girls are doing in practices and meets, so they will be prepared to run at a high level.  I network with as many coaches as possible.  There is always someone out there that knows more and does things a little better, so I am always looking to make things better by examining new ideas.  In my opinion, if you think you have the perfect system or are not flexible enough to change from year to year you will miss some great opportunities.  I look at each girl on my team with a four year plan and beyond in mind.  A healthy increase of volume and intensity, around 10% each year, is vital to their progression and staying injury free.  I am a firm believer that helping young athletes build aerobic base is the only way to really help them reach their potential as a distance runner.  I think in our society we want everything to happen overnight.  I always tell my runners to be patient and believe in the process.  I have to admit my girls have had a lot of faith and believe what we are doing works and the rest has been history.  You can screw somebody up much quicker throwing them into a highly anaerobic environment then most people will believe.  

One of our measuring stick workouts is the “Oregon” workout, where I have modified it to our program.  I will give credit where credit is due, but my girls know this workout as the “Titan.”  The girls will run an 800 on the track at an effort close to what they would in a normal cross-country race.  After a very short recovery of around 60 seconds we then go straight into a tempo run of 2 miles on a relatively flat grass course.  After another 60-90 seconds of recovery, we come directly back to the track and run 800 meters at 100% effort.  This workout is done in training shoes.  I have found if the tempo part of the workout is correctly done we get a great predictor of fitness and race readiness, as well as some very confident young ladies.

Liga, I noticed you have team shirts this year that say "Remember the Titans?"  Clearly a reference to your team mascot and the movie with Denzel Washington, but why the question mark?  And where did the idea for this year's team shirt come from?  What other things do the Lady Titans do for team unity, team tradition or team bonding?

Liga Blyholder: There’s a question mark because we have the answer on the backside. It says, “You will.” Our team loves t-shirts! We create two or three every season. One of our assistant coaches came up with that idea and we debated it for awhile. In the end, we all agreed it was pretty funny and chose it. 

Because our team gets along so well, we do a lot of team unity activities. Every pre-race night, we have a pasta party at a team member’s house or we carbo-load at our favorite place, Chipotle. In the summer, we have a tradition of going to a theme park, a Royals game, and to the lake to swim. We are just so close-knit and such good friends that we do things together outside of running often.

Photos: B&W photo of Chelsey Phoebus and Liga Blyholder by Brandon Daniels; all other photos courtesy Coach Jesse Griffin