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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 | west chester henderson pa boys
by Dave Devine, DyeStat Senior Editor

A week ago, at the Pennsylvania AAA State Meet, the boys of West Chester Henderson found themselves in trouble with less than a mile to go.  Tagged all season as the favorite after returning their entire squad from a 7th place finish in 2008, Henderson needed to make up some serious real estate in the final kilometer.  They responded the way championship teams often do-- they dug down and buried the needle in the last half mile of the race.  Fourth man Stash Grab went from 64th to 46th in the last mile.  Other teammates pulled similar duty, carving out a 119-128 win over North Allegheny.  Now in his 8th year, Coach Kevin Kelly has mentored his share of talented teams and elite individuals.  The cross country team won back to back state titles in 2002 and 2003 and finished second to eventual national champion Coatesville High in 2006. At Nike Indoor Nationals in 2007, the boys distance medley relay won the national championship, edging Fork Union high school by half a second.  Henderson stars Ian Gottesfeld (2002) and Chris Aldrich (2007) qualified for Foot Locker Nationals. That's quite a bit of history in a short period, and the Warriors hope to write the next chapter with a strong performance at the NXN Northeast Regional in two weeks.

DyeStat Senior editor Dave Devine caught up with Coach Kelly, heroic fourthman Stash Grab and #1 runner (6th at State) Will Kellar in the happy aftermath of their triumph at the Parkview Cross Country course in Hershey PA.

Coach, congrats on the latest PA State title for West Chester Henderson.  From what I understand, this one didn't necessarily come easily, as some guys didn't have their best day, but you still managed to pull out the win.  Can you recap the race from your perspective, what you think made the difference, and how the preparations all season culminated in this moment for your squad?

Coach Kevin Kelly: We didn't do a great job of getting out, but, for the most part, were in alright shape at the mile.  We really didn't move much in the middle part of the race.  We seemed to still be in 4th with about 800 meters to go.  Our 3rd and 4th runners picked up a lot of places from there in to win the race.  Our strength really paid off at the end of the race.

Your team was 7th at the state meet in 2008, but you returned the entire squad and entered the season as marginal favorites over squads like North Penn, North Allegheny and La Salle.  What did your team talk about heading into the 2009 season, knowing the expectations, the promise of having such a young team return the side, and the opportunities out ahead of you?  Did you do anything differently this year, and as a coach, how did you keep the guys focused and level-headed, while still keeping the long-term goals in mind?

Coach Kelly: We mostly talked about just building a really good base and trying to see what we could do.  We did push back our training a little bit because of Regionals.  We really didn't race much early.

Stash and Will, sounds like there were some nervous minutes as you waited to find out the outcome of the state meet, and that as late as 2.5 miles, observers were thinking you guys might be losing the team battle.  What happened in the last kilometer?  Did everyone find another gear? Did teams come back to you?  Did you all just dig down for one last push?  And how did it feel when the scores went up and you knew the miles and miles of preparation had paid off?

Stash Grab: In the last kilometer, Coach Kelly told Bryan Andrews, Austin Stecklair and me that we were losing to LaSalle and we had to pass as many of them as we could.  The three of us were able to kick it in and get past a few of them.  Once the score was announced I was relieved that our team was able to pull it together and win.

Will Kellar (above, right): I was genuinely worried that since my start and overall race were off, that the rest of the team may have also had a sketchy race. Our team really seemed to roll up the last 600 meters of the race; knowing that there was one last monster hill before the finish seemed to give our guys confidence to finish tough. I'd like to think that since no one had a great race, they figured the final kick should be all out in hopes of clinching the state championship.

Similar question to the one I asked Coach Kelly: Your team was 7th at the state meet in 2008, but you returned the entire squad and entered the season as marginal favorites.  What did you and your teammates talk about heading into the 2009 season, knowing the expectations, the promise of having such a young team return, and the opportunities out ahead of you?  Did you do anything differently this year, either in the summer, or in the early part of the season, to get ready for the big push to the state meet?

Stash Grab: We practiced as hard as we have every year that I have been part of the team.  The rankings did not change the way we trained.  We worked just as hard this year as we did my previous three.

Will Kellar: I was surprised when I first realized that we were returning so many talented runners, so I figured that we should make the most of a stacked team and try to aim for something greater than last year. We seemed to limit our racing this season until the championship portion of the season, which apparently benefitted us more than I originally thought it would. After racing well at the district meet, we realized that every team was going to be gunning for us at states which made the pressure overwhelming. I think that was one of the reasons this meet was so tough for us.

Coach, your league, the Ches-Mont, has been described as one of the most competitive in PA.  In 2006, league rival Coatesville went all the way to the Nike Cross National title, and week in and week out you meet stiff competition.  What have you learned from competing in the Ches-Mont?  Was there anything in particular you gathered from watching the journey of that '06 Coatesville squad up-close, perhaps things you applied to your own team and their preparation for big meets?

Coach Kelly: The Ches-Mont is a little down on the boy's side this year (although a Ches-Mont team has finished 1st or 2nd every year except 2008 this decade-at various times, we had 3 teams in the top 5 in the State).  Competing against that Coatesville squad in 2006 was exciting.  We had some good matchups with them.  For the Seniors on this team who were on that team, it was very intense.  That Coatesville team was very dominant. There was no way they were going to lose that year.  We still have a young mix on this team(4 juniors in the top 7 and 9 underclassmen in the top 13).

Your team had a big mid-season challenge at the Manhattan Invitational Eastern States race, where many of the top-ranked teams in the region were present.  Henderson ended up 6th, but only a few points out of fourth.  What did this tell you about your team, the rest of the region, and how things were looking for a possible shot at a trip to Portland for NXN?

Stash Grab:
We did not perform at our best at Manhattan and knew that we could do better.  Our determination only grew after Manhattan, and each one of us knew that we had to work very hard in order to win PIAA states and have the chance to go to Portland.

Will Kellar: We were so unprepared for this meet that we were satisfied to have placed 6th. Our team knew how solid the competition was going to be, and since we only had raced dual meets so far, this was a huge wake up call for the rest of the season. We realized that while we did have the talent, there was work to be done if we were to have a shot at Nationals. I think Manhattan was a good turning point in our season, but from a coach's perspective it was a bit disappointing.
I read where one of the things your team does to prepare for a race is to write individual goals on index cards at a team dinner, and then pass them to a teammate to share.  Can you describe that process a bit more, how it might help you get ready for a race, and what it's like to read someone else's goals out loud to the team?

Stash Grab: Each runner writes a personal and team goal for the next race.  The cards are passed around and another teammate reads the goals.  Having my goals read out loud by another teammate helps me to visualize my objectives for the race.

Will Kellar: This was a strong tradition with Henderson XC when I joined as a freshman. With a team our size this year (approx. 40 guys), I thought the tradition may be lost. I was surprised to see how the younger runners on the team seemed to accept the tradition and respect the fact that it has been around for many years. I think that when a teammate is able to share his goal with the team, it welcomes friendly competition and encouragement within the team, which makes for a stronger bond. I feel that I benefit from other peoples team and individual goals too, so I can see if we are all on the same page..

The annals of high school harrier history are filled with stars who said they were "discovered in gym class running the mile."  Coach Kelly, as a Physical Education teacher, do you find that phys ed is still (or ever was) a hotbed for discovering new talent?  Have you found some of your top runners that way?  And in general, how do you as a coach find the talented distance runners at a school like Henderson?  I'm guessing being in the building helps, but are there particular things you've done over the years to build your teams?

Coach Kelly: I teach mostly freshmen so we do "find" some guys that way.  We're not a huge school.  We have a great relationship with the wrestling coach, Dean Donley.  We have 7 wrestlers on the team this year.  We also get a lot of guys who come out after finding out that they're mediocre in soccer or football and have a little success in track.  Our middle school coach, John Kosic, does a great job of getting kids out.  Having a little bit of success never hurts.  Our numbers have grown every year for the last 5 years even though we added a 3rd high school in the district.  It definitely makes a huge difference being in the building.  It's a great running community so that helps also.

You've obviously had some great teams over the years, but also had a chance to coach top-shelf individual talent, like Foot Locker finalists Ian Gottesfeld and Chris Aldrich.  In a year like that, when you have standout individuals who have to fit within the team scheme, how do you balance the training needs of the elite individual with the broader needs of the deeper squad?  Was there anything you learned from going through the top level events with those guys which have helped you as a coach?

Coach Kelly: Chris, as a senior, vs Ian Gottesfeld, didn't really have anyone to work out with so we modified his training and pushed it back a little.  As we got to the post-season, other guys would do parts of his workouts to help him out.  This year's team was a lot more about the team, even though Will Kellar is a high level guy.  He does everything the team does.  Each team has a slightly different vibe.  Anytime that you go to a big meet like Foot Locker, Indoor Nationals, Penn Relays or State Championships you learn a lot about how your athletes react in different situations.  You also see how others prepare for those meets.  You can never stop learning and adapting what you do.

It's coming up on four years since Coatesville won the NXN title in Portland, but I know it's a victory that's still fresh in a lot of people's minds in PA.  Stash and Will, can you talk about how something like that--accomplished by a team from your league-- might have inspired others in PA to think and dream about achieving something similar?  Does a trip to NXN seem like more of a possibility when you see Coatesville, or North Allegheny last year, go out to Portland and represent the deep talent in PA?

Stash Grab: Having a cross town rival win such a prestigious meet is very motivating.  Coatesville has always been a great competitor for me and my team.  Beating Coatesville in '08 was a great accomplishment for us, and having the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Coatesville and North Allegheny would be a great honor.

Will Kellar:  2006 was my freshman year, so I didn't realize that Coatesville (or our own team) were so talented until I looked back on it later. I think it gives our team some encouragement to have confidence about the regional meet. Although Coatesville was clearly a better team than ours this year, I think we should aim for Nationals, but still keep in mind that if we race like we did at states, that dream may be cut short. Our coach always has confidence in our guys, so if we stay positive and take inspiration from the success of other PA teams, we may relize that this goal is achievable if we really want it.

Photos: Top, Will Kellar at the PA State Meet - Kristen Holzherr; middle and bottom - Bob Baumann