Dragons’ returning experience belies loss of standouts

07/21/2014 3:16 PM

07/21/2014 3:17 PM

Winning one state title is impressive. Winning back-to-back state championships is a remarkable feat. Winning four in a row – in both girls and boys divisions – is unheard of. Well, maybe unheard of until this season, because that’s exactly what the Southlake Carroll cross country program is out to accomplish.

Having secured three consecutive boys and girls state meets, the Dragons are on the verge of history, says senior Eli Canal.

“If we win this state championship, it would mean the Class of 2015 would be the first class in Texas UIL history to have both boys and girls win four consecutive state titles. So we definitely want to get that title,” he said.

In order to do so, a few new faces will have to step in and fill some big running shoes, but that seems to have been the modus operandi for the Dragons since Justin Leonard took over as head coach six years ago.

“We’re in a pattern to where our guys and girls are working really hard and biding their time and putting in a lot of work,” Leonard said. “Once the next class graduates, they know it’s their responsibility and their opportunity to fill those voids. They embrace the opportunity because they’ve worked so hard to get to run on the varsity that once it’s their year, they take the reins and do it.”

Carroll will rely on that succession plan again this season. The boys team returns four runners from last year’s state meet group. And while that may seem like a large figure, it belies that the Dragons have lost their top two runners from last season – a duo that finished second and fifth at the state meet.

“It looks good because it’s a lot of experience, and we’re excited about that, but we graduated our top two guys from last season so we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to cover what we graduated last year.”

Seniors Canal, Johnny Kemps, Luke Lanham and Ansel Richards will be looked to for leadership on and off the course. Canal admits there is a certain weight of expectations.

“We’re under a lot of pressure,” he said. “We have alumni that are constantly coming back and talking to us and they’re the ones who really started it.”

On the girls side, the Dragons have the advantage of junior Antigone Archer returning. She was a top-five finisher at the state meet last season and will likely lead the ladies’ charge this year. Fellow junior Kayli Jones and sophomore Ari Lopez were also part of last season’s title campaign.

This season’s first meet is Aug. 23, and of course that’s still in the heart of summer in these parts. Thus, summer training is an important part of preparations for the “four-peat.”

“We know it’s important for us to get in solid summer training,” Leonard said. “We get the kids up early and try to meet at 7 in the morning to build what we call our base phase. It’s our foundation, and to have a strong foundation you have to be good over the summer. Our goal is to log mileage. It’s Texas, it’s going to be hot. We’ve got to get the kids adapted to the heat a little bit … it’s a fine line, but we try to find a happy medium.”

Canal says even the best planning can be undone by improper preparation.

“We’ve had a few issues with dehydration, including myself,” he said. “We really have to take it carefully and constantly be hydrating and making sure we get enough calories to keep ourselves healthy.”

Canal also notes that it’s more than just about logging miles over the summer.

“We run a lot at parks that have hills; we run flat areas; when it’s windy. We’re trying to get ourselves accustomed to running in any kind of condition and any terrain.”

Six state titles in three years doesn’t happen by mistake. And both Leonard and Canal see a combination of factors at work that has allowed the program to thrive.

“We’ve got really good kids and they’re willing to buy in and really work hard,” Leonard said. “The parents buy in and support them. It’s a combination of the parents, the kids, community and the school district; it’s everybody allowing us to do what we need to do to be successful so that’s a huge part of it.”

“It’s really our sense of community,” Canal adds. “We really include everyone. We’re not like other schools that have a varsity class and a JV class. We have everyone practicing together. Everyone knows each other. We have good trust in each other and we hold ourselves accountable to help us get to our goals.”

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