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2006 Nike Team Nationals - Southwest Preview

New Mexico's distance running hotbed; Cheyenne Central's roller coaster ride; O'Connor's quick success

Nov. 29, 2006 Portland OR

by Sal Gonzales, Southwest region editor

 New Mexico teams - Cheyenne Central WY boys - O'Connor AZ girls

New Mexico

New Mexico:  A cross country hotbed
How does a state with less than 2 million people make such a big splash on the national forefront?  Tradition, culture, and climate are to credit for New Mexico qualifying three teams to Nike Team Nationals this fall. 

New Mexico is a state that has been known for outstanding distance runners.  Each region of the state has its own local heroes.  The Albuquerque Metro area has greats like Chuck Aragon (Olympian), and Simon Gutierrez (Kinney Finalist).  North Central New Mexico has Anthony Sandoval (1980 Olympic Marathon Trials Champion) and Gerry Garcia (5 Time Cross Country State Champion).  Southerners have a more current hero in David Krummenacker. And the North Western, or Four Corners Area, has Amy Swier (NM 1600m, 3200m record holders and Footlocker Finalist) and Gallup’s Brandon Leslie and Felicia Guilford.  Distance running is popular throughout the state making it a competitive option for a large portion of the states’ population.

Gallup High School-
Any discussion of New Mexico Cross Country and its rich tradition has to include the mighty Gallup Bengals. The school’s running tradition was started by their legendary coach Curtis Williams.  In the 1990s the team received national recognition when Brandon Leslie and Felicia Guilford each qualified for Footlocker Nationals and finished in the top 5.  Both the boys and Girls teams have earned multiple recognitions on Marc Bloom’s end of the season Top 25 list. Coach Williams has since left Gallup but their tradition continues.  This past season the Bengal boys captured the 5A state championship. 
Distance running has been ingrained in the culture of New Mexico for centuries.  The state is the home to many Native American peoples for whom running is essential to their religion and culture.  Until very recently the majority of the state championships were won by teams that are within a Native American reservation or near one.  Native American schools have dominated cross country in New Mexico for the past 30 years.  Gallup is the cultural and economic center of the Navajo Nation and its high school has won 31 team and 18 individual state Championships. Laguna-Acoma High School is a school district that combines the populations of two Pueblos has won 26 team and 21 individual cross country championships since 1969. The school was also home to Melissa Lucero, and Shane Garcia who own the top times in the AA division for the 1600 and 3200 meter runs.  Zuni, a Pueblo reservation, has brought home 21 team Championships. Quality Native American runners and teams can be found in many regions of the state.  Team State championships have been captured by Jemez Valley (Pueblo), Pojoaque (33% of Population is Pueblo) and Santa Fe Indian School (A private school who’s population is made up of Pueblo students from around the state.) Even schools whose population does not contain a significant percentage of Native Americans are represented. Current Nike Team Nationals qualifier Albuquerque Academy Boys are led by Dustin Martin and the Nike Team Nationals qualifying Eldorado Girls team have Allison Bedonie.
Most of New Mexico contains the ideal climate for distance running.  The high elevations help to provide a cooler summer in which runners can train comfortably twice a day.  Precipitation is scarce and the mild but cool winters make for a year round training site that is second to none. Because of these advantages many world class athletes have made New Mexico and more specifically Albuquerque their home, as Albuquerque Academy Boys Coach Adam Kedge notes, "Last week I looked out my office window; and clear as day was Henry Rono jogging a few laps around our track. We often get world class marathoners running on campus. Paula Radcliff has used our campus and track each of the past 8 years during her preseason preparation in January and February."
Academy XC Club, Albuquerque “The Red Army”
“Run everyday. Run when it’s hot. Run when it’s cold. Run before you eat your turkey on Thanksgiving. Run before you open your presents on Christmas morning. Run everyday.”  This simple message is the cornerstone of Albuquerque Academy’s success.  Head Coach Adam Kedge believes in consistency. He believes in simplicity. And he believes in his runners. Kedge has been coaching tack and cross country at Albuquerque Academy for 11 years. Before that he served as the boys track and field coach at Eldorado High School. He grew up in the small northern New Mexico town of Espanola where he learned to love running. After Graduating from Espanola, Kedge ran for UNM where he participated in the Steeplechase and Cross Country. He considers is running career “moderately successful.” But his coaching career has been phenomenal.

The term "Red Army" is one that Kedge labeled his growing team of 51 boys a few years back and success for the Red Army continues to grow. Prior to 1995 Albuquerque Academy boys had not won a team or individual state championship. Since 1995 the Charger Boys have won 9 team and 6 individual State Championships. The teams have been ranked nationally and regionally. In 2004 they earned their first trip to the Nike Team National where they finished 10th.  But 2006 may be their most successful season yet. For the third time in the last 10 years the Charger boys have yet to lose a meet.   Kedge compares this year's team to his 2002 state championship squad that produced 9 college distance runners. And the current Chargers have not shied away from competition.  They competed in and dominated some of the most competitive meets in New Mexico, (UNM, Albuquerque Academy, and the Albuquerque City Championships).  They also traveled to Colorado to win the highly competitive Liberty Bell Invitational. 

Los Alamos XC Club, “The Hilltoppers”
It’s not easy being Green. But co-head coaches Rob and Kathy Hipwood make it look easy.  The two have created a juggernaut program “on top of The Hill” in Northern New Mexico.  Over the past 15 years both their boys and girls teams have earned national and regional rankings.  Their girls’ teams in the early 2000’s were ranked in the top 3 by Marc Bloom.  Heather Wood, a member of those teams, was a Footlocker finalist.  Both Rob and Kath graduated from Adams State College where they were influenced by Joe Vigil and Damon Martin.  Their current philosophy may seem moderate as Kathy points out, “I wouldn’t consider us high mileage or high intensity.” The Hipwoods believe in gradually, “over years” building a runner’s speed and endurance. Rob adds, “Because of where we train most of our runs are based on time not mileage. It is hard to find level ground in Los Alamos.”  Because of altitude (Los Alamos is at 7400ft above sea level) the Hipwoods have implemented many downhill runs so that they can run at faster speeds.  The Hippwood philosophy has worked as this year’s boys squad becomes the 2nd (Girls qualified in 2004) Los Alamos team to qualify to the Nike Team Nationals.

The road to Portland was not a smooth one for the Los Alamos boys.  Early season injuries and inexperience led to some “un-Hilltoper” like performances. The most notable outcomes were their 13th place finish at UNM and their 6th place finish at Albuquerque Academy.  But the Hilltopers got healthy and experienced in a hurry.  Their performance at Academy was followed by a dominating performance at the Santa Fe Indian School invitational.  They then traveled to Colorado where they surprised many by defeating a quality field at the Centerra Invitational.  When then returned they fought hard in two epic battles with Academy. Both times they came up short but they were closer to the Red Army than any other team all year.
Albuquerque XC Club (Eldorado), Golden Eagles
Distance running has been good to James Butler. He was able to win a team and individual cross country championship as a senior for Eldorado High School in 1997.  It took him to Wake Forest where he was able to go to Cross Country Nationals and run 14:24 for 5k on the track. And now as a coach he has been privileged to coach Footlocker Finalist and his beloved Girls Team.  Distance running is a major part of Butler’s life but so is fun, “I strive to keep cross country fun for the whole team.  Running in itself is not a particularly enjoyable experience so I try to keep the atmosphere light and include many fun aspects into doing the training that is necessary to be successful. ” The 26 year old Butler has a variety of influences.  While he was in high school he was coached by Adam Kedge and Jim Edwards, who Butler calls “mentors. I strive to reach the level of success that they have achieved.” While he was running at Wake Forest he was fortunate enough to be coached by the legendary Bill Dillenger who taught Butler that cross country is about “having a confident and positive attitude can make all the difference.”  Even though this is Butler’s 2nd year as a Head coach he is ready to lead his girls to Portland.

This year’s Eldorado Girls team is deep. It has six runners who are virtually interchangeable.  Following the 2005-06 school year Julie Brasher had emerged as the front runner for the team.  She finished 24th at Footlocker West and picked up a 5A state championship in the 1600m run. But when the school year started she was joined at the front of the pack by Rachel Velarde and Allison Bedonie. All three of these ladies have taken home blue medals during the team’s undefeated 2006 season.  Eldorado has only lost one meet in the last two years. Their only defeat came at the 2005 state championship where they were upset by the Gallup Bengals.  The Golden Eagles were able to avenge that defeat several times this season.  Eldorado High School is in the Albuquerque Public School District which limits its cross country teams from traveling outside of the state and only allows one out of city meet per season. Working under those rules Butler took his teams to the toughest meets he could schedule.  Eldorado was able to dominate at UNM, the Curtis Williams Invitational, the Academy Invitational and the Albuquerque City Championships. 

The future may see more team, from neighboring states, visiting New Mexico for its warm weather, fabulous sunsets and a chance to compete against some of the best teams in the southwest and nation.

Cheyenne Central WY boys

Cheyenne XC Club, Wyoming (Cheyenne Central): A wild ride for the southwest wildcard

If you have ever been on a good roller coaster you know the feeling. Not the cheap ‘carney’ coasters that they have at your local state fair, but the really great ones like ‘X,’ ‘Millennium Force’ or ‘Joker’s Revenge.’  You wait in line for about an hour, but when you finally get strapped in you know you are in for a thrill. You know there are going to be some slow climbs and fast descents, but you are confident that it’s going to be a blast. And you hope that the thrill out weighs the wait.  Cheyenne Central Head Coach Rick Bishop knows the feeling. He knew this season was going to be a good one; he just didn’t know how high or how low this ride was going to take him and his team.

The Steady Climb
The biggest early season meet for Cheyenne Central (and most top Southwest schools) was the Liberty Bell Invitational. At that meet the Indians finished 3rd. They were 49 points behind Albuquerque Academy and 21 points behind their in-state rival Campbell County.  Head Coach Rick Bishop is not fond of the meet but enjoys the competition, “Our system is hard Monday-Wednesday so we don't like Friday meets.” The meet has “great atmosphere, great competition, every body runs fast (but) it's not cross country.”  The Indians started their ascent here but they were not aware that the ride was gaining speed while it climbed.

The next meet on the schedule for Cheyenne Central, the Elks Club Invitational in Rapid City, South Dakota, was cancelled due to rain.  The team found out as they were on their way to the meet.  The next big meet for the Indians was the Sweetheart Invitational in Loveland, Colorado.  This was a peak moment for Cheyenne Central.  They were able to defeat Campbell County (SW#2 at the time) with the score of their sixth man, Matt Carey.  This victory lifted the Indians to the #2 spot in the regional rankings. They were above the amusement park and had a great view of all of the other rides. At this time only one seemed to be higher, but from their vantage Cheyenne Central could not see the severe drop ahead.

The Drop
The Loveland meet was followed by another trip into Colorado. The results for Cheyenne Central would be quite different from the previous week. First of all, the team was without their head coach.  Rick Bishop, participating in the St. George Marathon said, “I knew I made a commitment to St. George and if I back out for any reason it would be easier to back out next race; then even easier the next time. I am almost 50 and my racing career is near the end.” Bishop was able to finish 26th overall in a time of 2:40:42 but his team would not fare as well.  The Indians finished 4th behind Los Alamos, NM, Grand Junction, CO and Dakota Ridge CO.  The top-heavy field was talented. Los Alamos ended up the 4A runner-up in New Mexico and a Nike Team Nationals Qualifier while Dakota Ridge and Grand Junction finished 1-2 in the 5A division in Colorado. The Indians were not pleased with their performance.  Laine Parrish had been diagnosed with mononucleosis but was able to convince the assistant coaches that he was well enough to run. An obviously weak Parrish finished a disappointing 56th and was the team’s #4.  Devin Rathburn, the team’s usual #4 finished in 63rd place, well behind the top group.  This performance knocked Cheyenne Central out of the Southwest Rankings. Their in-state rivals Campbell County, who decided to remain in Wyoming and participate in a less competitive meet, regained the #2 ranking and Los Alamos jumped into the #3 spot.  Had Bishop known Parrish’s health status the race would have been different. “Had I known LAINE had mono I would not have run him.” Parrish would have been left on the sidelines and the rankings change may have been different. But the results at the time of the race were that the Cheyenne Central team that was healthy and strong the week before had been defeated and looked vulnerable.  The wild ride that had so much promise seemed to be slowing down, but not because it was over, it was because a new climb was about to begin.

Another Loop!
As the post season began the Indians still believed that they were a top team.  They now needed to go out and prove it.  They started off strong and never let up. Their first meet was the Wyoming 4A Southern Regional where they won easily. They then prepared for their rematch with the Campbell County Camels from Gillette, who had won the 4A Northern Regional.  The meet was scheduled for a Saturday but had to be moved to Monday because of snow. The change was good for Cheyenne Central as the Indians were able to dominate the Camels by placing all 5 of their scorers in the top 10 and by running 6 in front of Campbell County’s #5. The win gave Cheyenne Central the school’s 3rd boys state championship. The last one came in 1974.  This performance propelled the Indians back into the Southwest Rankings.  They were now ranked 3rd and were on the outside looking in at a bid to NTN.  The team still believed that they had their destiny in their own hands.  If they could win the Rocky Mountain Championship they would surely earn a bid.

The 36 team boys’ team championship was going to be the toughest test of the year for the Indians. They had to face some of the best teams from Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana.  The Indians were able to squeak by Bozeman, MT by 4 points (124-128). The young but tough Wheat Ridge, CO squad finished 3rd in 198.  Cheyenne Central was again led by Scott Foley who finished 7th in 16:26, the next 4 Indians crossed the line within 45 seconds of each other.  The Bozeman team also had an excellent pack time, but it was not enough to defeat Cheyenne Central.  The team would now have to wait and see if their performance was enough to earn a trip to Portland Meadows.

The Waiting Game
This is the point in the ride where you are not sure if it is over.  The cars are heading toward the line but you hope that there is one more thrill. The results of the initial “Selection Sunday” were not pleasing to the eyes and ears of the Indians.  The two automatic selections for the Southwest were Academy XC Club New Mexico (Academy) and Los Alamos XC Club New Mexico (Los Alamos).  The squad would have to wait another week. They trained and hoped that their ride was not over.  Luckily for the Indian’s there was one more thrill left in this ride. It was a fast jolt with a splash landing as the team from Cheyenne Central would receive one of the first at-large selections.  The team is excited and anxious to get to Portland and show the nation what they are all about. Their coach is a little more cautious and humble, “our main concern is to represent Wyoming and the region. I will be honest, Rock Springs was the best team Wyoming has ever had; they placed 19th last year so I don't know if we are even worthy.”  It is tough for a person to react when they are on the last legs of a great coaster. When Coach Bishop gets his feet on the ground he will know that his team is more than worthy.


O'Connor AZ girls

Phoenix XC Club Arizona (Sandra Day O’Connor): The Recipe for Success

How do you build a NTN team in a hurry? Ask Brian Dempsey. He has the recipe.  You take a 5 year old school, mix in a tough group of dedicated girls and bake it at 100�� for 3-4 months and there you go. Well it’s not that easy but Dempsey makes it look like it is.

Phoenix is a beautiful city. The climate makes it possible to play golf and baseball year round. But it is less than ideal for training distance runners. Because of the heat the O’Connor girls are usually limited to one run a day. In the summer they run late in the evenings because as Dempsey points out “It is hard to meet in the mornings because some of the girls live far from the school, but it is definitly something we are going to look into next year.”  The temperature is usually above 95�� in the late evenings. When the school year begins the O’Connor team must practice after school. For the months of August and September they are usually practicing when the temperature is over 100��. In October the temperatures retreat into the low 90s and high 80s and practicing becomes less of a chore. Dempsey had to change some of his philosophies when he moved to Arizona, “On our long days we run out for 15 minutes and then back to the school to drink water. Then we run out for another 15 and then back.”  A core practice for the O’Connor team is to drink water all day. 

The Coach
This is Brian Dempsey’s 5th year at O’Connor.  He is also employed as a Physical Education teacher. Before taking the job at O’Connor Dempsey coached 12 years for the AZ Blaze, a USATF team that he founded. Dempsey grew up in Maryland, where he ran for the Howard County Striders, and Centennial High School. Eventually he competed for Frosburg State University a Division III school.  He started coaching during his last year in college.  The 40 year old Dempsey moved to Phoenix in 1994. In that same year he started the AZ Blaze. In 2002 Dempsey fulfilled a lifelong dream of being a head coach when he was hired by O’Connor, “I have been lucky enough to start the program from scratch.”  Coach Dempsey proved that he has the recipe for success.

The Season
The season started for the O’Connor girls with a 3 day camp in Prescott, Arizona where the girls were able to bond and set goals.  They decided that a top 3 finish at the Doug Conley Invitational, the school’s first regional and state championships would be the stars that they would shoot for. Some early season success changed the mindset of the team as Coach Dempsey recalled, “We started the season off by winning a couple of invitationals. We ran very well. We got ranked #1 in the state and started realizing that we could do well at Conley. We placed 4th and 6th the past two years so the girls knew what it would take to win.”  The week of the Doug Conley meet was pivotal for the O’Connor girls.  They started to focus more intently on their training and the recipe started coming together. 

The Doug Conley Invitational, held at Kiwanis Park in Tempe, is the biggest meet in Arizona.  The girls now believed that they could win the meet. Not only did they win the meet but they dominated the competition.  They were 38 points better than Page and 79 points better than Xavier Prep.  Lindsay Prescott recorded the fastest time by winning the Varsity Girls race in 18:11. Camile Olson would finish 3rd in 18:51. She was followed closely by Aleina Eisenhaur (8th in 19:17) and Jade Riley (10th in 19:39). 

The Doug Conley win earned the Eagles the #6 position in the Southwest rankings. Coach Dempsey knew that the girls needed tougher competition, “we decided to go to Mt Sac. The girls had to run 3 meets in 7 days and Mt Sac would be the 2nd meet.”  Dempsey trained the girls through the first meet and then mentally prepared the girls for Mt. SAC, “I told the girls they had nothing to lose going into Mt Sac. I think that relaxed them.” Once again Dempsey was able to add the perfect amount of spice to create a tasty result.  The Lady Eagles finished 4th in the Team Sweepstakes race, and were only 19 points behind Saugus (an eventual Nike Team Nationals Qualifier.) The results for Mt. SAC propelled O’Connor into the #2 spot in the rankings. They were now in the driver seat and the team’s confidence continued to grow.

The O’Connor girls did not lose a meet the remainder of the season.  They won the Arizona 5A Division II team championship by 59 points over Marana Mountain View. They were also able to gain the top spot in the Southwest region when Fort Collins, CO failed to win the 5A Colorado state championship.  The girls are now on their way to Portland where they will be the first team from Arizona to attend the Nike Team Nationals.

The Frontrunner
Lindsay Prescott is the confident but not cocky junior star on the O’Connor team. She was the 5A Division II Champion and finished 32nd at the 2005 Footlocker West Regional. She was going to be the 22nd fastest returning runner before her plans changed for the first Saturday in December. But becoming a Footlocker Finalist is still one of her goals. Prescott has come a long way from where she was a year ago. At the Footlocker West race she was 1:40 behind Marie Lawrence and at the Mt. SAC Invitational this fall she cut that margin to 40 seconds. She loves her team, “we are like a family, we hangout together and we train together.”  But she is not excited about the Portland weather, “we will freeze.”  Prescott runs with confidence and aggression. You can see both emotions on her face when she races. In the Arizona-New Mexico Border War she started out hard attempting to stay with Nadya Bishton, who had run the fastest time for the Arizona State meet.  When Bishton was able to pull ahead of Prescott you could see the frustration in her face. But Prescott continued to surge attempting to regain her earlier pace.  When the lead pack took a wrong turn Prescott fought hard to regain her position. And when the race was over she defiantly showed her displeasure in the race, “I thought that was the last turn! This race doesn’t matter anyhow!” Lindsay Prescott has a lot of fire, and she is dedicated. Coach Dempsey calls her “the hardest working athlete I have ever been around.”  In Portland look for Prescott to be running hard for her teammates that she calls “sisters.” She will also be running hard to earn another trip; this one is to San Diego and the Footlocker Finals.