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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 | college park tx girls
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

The Woodlands is a school name instantly recognizable for track and XC fans in Texas and, if you’re a fan on a national level, all over the country.  For decades, Danny Green built a successful boys program at The Woodlands, formerly known as McCullough, and the girls program has been outstanding as well.  But in that growing area of Houston, there’s another school – College Park – that has risen up and made a name for itself, having a season now in its fifth year as a school that has brought it into 5A state title contention in the Lone Star State, a South#1 and US#17 ranking (as of Oct. 16), and in the running for an NXN bid.

Maybe it should be no surprise that a former TWH runner has been behind this success.  Andrea K. Bookout was the state 800 champ there in 1998 and became a collegiate All-American at Texas A&M.  She started at the helm of the girls XC program when College Park opened five years ago, having split off from The Woodlands HS.  Now in 2009, Coach Bookout has developed a group of girls that rival her for their competitiveness and, boosted by Kingwood Park transfer Bree Shrader, have jelled into a very successful program. 

Shrader, who ran at NXN for her school’s club last fall, has become the #1 and leader, but the Running Cavaliers’ depth has brought them to big victories at Rim Rock and – after surviving the flu and having to run only a partial team at Nike South – their own College Park Invite, where four South Region Top-5 teams gathered last weekend.  The team also features Claire Andrews, sister of US#4 Sarah Andrews still at The Woodlands; Celeste Neff, whose brother Danny ran 9:03 for 3200 for TWH; and senior McKenze Neal, who was the #2 in the most recent victory.  DyeStat Senior Editor SteveU talked with Coach Bookout, Shrader, and Neal as they got ready for the drive to a state title bid.

Coach, last week you raced in your home invite, a small but very competitive meet with four top Texas teams on your home course.  You came off a meet at Nike South where you were unable to run a complete team because of illness.  Can you talk about the effect of the flu on your team and the significance of being able to bounce back with a race like last weekend?

Coach Bookout: The flu hit our team pretty hard and we had many of the girls out at the same time, but a lot of teams in the area are dealing with this right now. My main focus was to get them back as healthy as I could, as soon as possible. If that meant not running for a week, that is what we did. I did not want girls racing when they were sick because I knew it would take them that much more time to recover and get over it. I have to say it is better for us to get sick now than in November, when we really need to be healthy and run fast. The one thing that was great is that the girls were all healthy enough to get our very first win ever at our home meet. It was an exciting day for us.

Bree, same question for you: How big was it to bounce back with a race like last weekend after what happened at Nike South?

Bree Shrader: Well, the flu definitely hit our team hard and we had a lot of people out for quite a few days, but thankfully everyone was healthy enough to run at our home meet. It affected us for the week of Nike South, but most of us bounced back fairly quickly after that and were able to have an awesome home meet. I think it was a big deal, because in the past College Park has never won a home meet, so it was great to pull off a win this year.

Coach, you’ve had a very solid team here in recent years, but what has really helped the team evolve to this level this year where you have a chance to make Nike Nationals for the first time?  What has been the impact of Bree coming in, and how have you seen the rest of the team develop and mature?

Coach Bookout: I really think it takes time and a base to really build a foundation for a program. We have such a special group of girls this year, everyone from my freshman to my seniors. It is the first time we have a group of girls that really want to be in the program and really work hard to get better. The dynamic between the girls has allowed us to bond and really come together to work for our goals.

Bree has really stepped in and has become a leader on our team. She has given us a front runner that we have needed and it has made the other girls chase after that and just get better. Bree also has such an amazing attitude that encourages and drives others to be better.

McKenze, as a senior varsity runner with the team a few years now, can you talk about how you’ve seen things develop?

McKenze Neal: When I first started running in my sophomore year, we had a pretty decent team. I made varsity and we had a few new freshmen who came on and impacted our team, and we were able to make it to state for the first time in our school's history. We didn't take it as seriously, though, because we were just happy to be there. Over the next year, we gained a couple more freshmen and made it to state again, but unfortunately not performing like we wanted to.

Now this year we have a new freshman, and Bree, and both of them have really impacted our team. The past years, we never had a front runner to push everyone else at the front of the pack.  But now we have Bree up there, who has helped pull the rest of the team up closer together and more to the front.

Bree, what has it been like for you as a transfer coming from Kingwood.  What circumstances led to the transfer?  What have been the most positive things and what have been the biggest challenges?  How important is it for you to get back to NXN, both personally and in helping lead the team?

Bree Shrader: My mom is a sports massage therapist, and she'd wanted to work at a clinic for a long time, so when an opportunity came up for her to work at a family friend's clinic in The Woodlands, we prayed about it and decided it was the right choice to make and ended up moving.

The most positive thing has definitely been the team at College Park - I love all the girls and they're very supportive. From the minute they heard I was moving, they started talking to me and we've become really good friends in just a few months. The biggest challenge has probably been just the overall change of moving to a new place and going to a new school. I'm a very patterned person and I don't like change very much, but the team has been incredible and I've found a good, small group at church, so I'm settling in really well. NXN was an amazing experience last year, and hopefully we'll be able to qualify for it this year. State is the main priority right now, but NXN would be an incredible way to end the season.

Coach, you were a successful high school and collegiate runner yourself, and not very long ago, at that.  Can you tell us about your transition into coaching, how long you’ve been at College Park and how your coaching style has evolved?  Are there challenges to having been a top athlete and having expectations that everyone will take it as seriously as you did?

Coach Bookout: I have been at College Park now for five years, since it has opened. The first couple years were hard, obviously – a new school in such a competitive area. I think the main thing about creating a program is setting high expectations and sticking to those so your athletes know what to expect. My girls know that I ran in college and they know that I have been through what they are going through. They also know that I am one of the most competitive people out there – I do not like to lose.

I think it helps them knowing that I ran in high school and college, so they know I am not just telling them things, or having them do things that they might question. It is obviously different being the coach and not the athlete; there are so many days that I want to just jump in there with them and race. I always try to get them to understand they will never have these opportunities again, and to go out there and make the most of every workout or race.

One thing I noticed on your web site was the “Important information for distance runners” letter, which seemed to be very thorough primer in getting the right shoes, the right nutrition, enough rest, and so on.  Can you talk about how you developed your very holistic approach and the impact you’ve seen that have?

Coach Bookout: I think that as a runner you have to do the little things to make yourself better. There is always going to be someone working as hard or harder that you. If you can be prepared and healthy it is just going to allow you to become that much better of a runner. You have to commit over 100 percent.

Having competed and now coaching in this famous Houston suburb, what could you tell an outsider about the development of the distance running programs in The Woodlands and surrounding areas, and just how tough it is?  Is there a sense of almost “family” in the running community up there, mixed in with the competitive environment?  The Woodlands has such national name recognition for all the success under Danny Green, but you are developing your own top program at College Park.  What would you tell an outsider about what the prep running community like up there? 

Coach Bookout: The Woodlands and the Houston area are very competitive when it comes to distance running and, really, all sports in general. There is a great running community that has developed in The Woodlands, I guess somewhat of a tradition. I actually started running when I was 6 yrs. Old, going to Coach Green's summer track clinic. There is so much for young kids to get involved in and also many clubs that adults can be a part of. I grew up in The Woodlands and went to The Woodlands High School, so I guess when I came to College Park I really wanted to grow our program into something special. I wanted to be an elite, competitive team, in our own way.

What are some of your most important training principles in terms of weekly mileage, key workouts, favorite workouts, off-season training, and so on?  What are some of the workouts College Park has become known for?

Coach Bookout: The most important thing, I think, for training girls is that you have to build them gradually. My freshmen do not do the same things as my juniors or seniors. I feel like you really have to develop girls or all they are going to do is get injured and be out for a season, which then just is discouraging. I also really try to look at the individual athlete, because everyone is different! I know that some girls can handle 45 miles a week, but there are others that cannot or just are not there yet.

I believe as a coach that – bottom line – you have to work hard; you have to worker harder today than you did yesterday.  It is how we get better as athletes. I also try to stress you have to have FUN!!! If you are not having fun, then your never going to really be able to put yourself out there and be as good as you can be. Workout-wise, I don't think we have a workout we are known for but......I think tempo runs are crucial for strength and base.  And we do partner 400s, the shorter faster stuff, that my girls really seem to like.

McKenze, what are some of your favorite workouts and favorite places to train in the area around your school?

McKenze Neal (right): One of my favorite workouts is quarters. Even though we usually do about 12 of them, being able to run shorter and faster has always been one of my preferred workouts. My favorite place to train around our school would have to be Jones State Forest. We just recently found a way to get over to the forest and I always enjoy running through the woods on trails.

Let’s say your team qualifies for NXN, and after the race you’re relaxing and talking with some kids you’ve met from another team. They ask you, “What is it like running for College Park High School, and what is it like training in The Woodlands as a city?”  What would you tell them?

McKenze Neal: I really enjoy running for College Park. It is such a new school that there is still so much more to be done. We were able to win region and qualify for state for the first time in school history last year. To be able to go and win state for the first time would be amazing and that is one of our big goals right now.

One unfortunate thing about where our school is located is there isn't much choice of where to run from. We are located right on a highway and have to cut through a parking lot of a church to get to where our runs are – and even from there we have limited options. When we have free Saturdays with no meet we will meet over near a road called "Flintridge," which has some pretty decent-sized hills that are really good for training.

Photos: First and third photos from Rim Rock (team and McKenze Neal) by Greg Gholke; second photo from Humble Invite by Richard Schultz from runningcavaliers.com.