Just one day before the first official practice of the 2019 season for the Elizabethtown Area High School cross country team, head coach Mark Gallagher was traveling back from Mongolia, where he had been supporting his wife while she competed in a 100K run.
He was back in plenty of time for their morning workout on Monday, Aug. 12.
“I’m a little jetlagged,” Gallagher admitted. It was a 13-hour return flight to the U.S.
That dedication is what helped the Bears have one of their best seasons in recent memory last year. The girls, carried by the conquering trio of Cat Shontz, Katie Locker and Madeline Quinn, gave the program its first section title, going undefeated in the regular season and finishing as the runner-up to Manheim Township at the Lancaster-Lebanon League Championships. The boys, meanwhile, went 4-6 overall but were extremely competitive in the process; they lost by a combined two points to Manheim Township and Cedar Crest, the respective second and third-place teams.
This year will be far different though, especially for the Lady Bears. Shontz graduated after four terrific seasons. She finished third at the league championship, as well as fifth in the Class 3A District 3 Championship. Her 25th-place finish at states was Elizabethtown’s lone medal. Shontz is set to join Temple University’s cross country team this season.
Two other seniors, Julee Wells and Jessie Lloyd, are also gone; they gamely stepped up late in the season after then-junior Kate Weissend, the typical No. 4 runner, went down with a foot injury. Wells’ efforts earned her an opportunity to compete for Hood College’s cross country team.
Compounding matters are the non-graduation losses. Weissend elected to join the girls tennis team this year. Elizabethtown will also be without Quinn, a junior this season, for an indefinite period of time; she suffered a stress fracture in her right foot at the beginning of July. She was the highest finisher at districts for the Lady Bears, coming in third, in addition to fourth at leagues and 34th at states.
“I gonna be starting physical therapy soon,” Quinn said. “I’m hoping to learn some new exercises. As of now, I’m just resting and icing my foot as much as possible. It’s hard. I miss being with everyone running. I think I’ll be more appreciative of the sport when I get the boot off.”
That leaves Locker, a senior who won the L-L Championship last year, as the team’s only runner with extensive experience. She was also fourth at districts and 26th at states, adding onto her previous accolades.
“I feel (the pressure) a little bit since we lost such good runners,” Locker said. “We’re gonna just try our hardest and see how far we can go. I think we’re gonna be happy with whatever we do. We just want to have a good season.”
Thankfully, the Lady Bears have some potential candidates to help fill the void. Sophomore Sierra Kapcsos, who was named a team captain alongside Locker and Quinn, is the only sure thing coming into the season. She took 24th at leagues in her freshman season.
Sophomores Katrina Hook and Olivia Shenk have stood out so far during the offseason. The former was one of the top runners for the junior high team last year, while the latter is new to cross country after spending her freshman year on the girls soccer team. Senior Lauren Duffitt and junior Maggie McCoy, who’ve been with the program long-term, will also be looked at to make strides.
“It’s been fun to help the younger girls,” Locker said. “I’ve always had people guiding me, so now it’s my chance to guide all of them. It’s almost second nature.”
“It’s the first day of preseason, and I’ve already made a connection with all the girls,” Quinn said. “It’s gonna be fun working together, and I think it’s gonna be a fun season overall. We just want to be the strongest team we can be.”
“We’re gonna be trading off Cat, who’s irreplaceable as a leader and a role model, for some new people who could get us those later spots that we didn’t pick up last year,” Gallagher said. “I’m thinking that when we get toward the end of the season and get Maddie back, we might go into the postseason with a really powerful group. In some ways, it becomes more fun to see what we can do along the way.”
Conversely, the boys suffered just one major loss to last season’s group, though it was a big one: Nat McCloud, who graduated as the team’s undisputed vocal leader. Still, he wasn’t the Bears’ best all-around runner in 2018. That would be senior Jesse Myers, who had a strong regular season as a junior. On the other hand, he faltered slightly in the postseason, taking 50th at leagues and 71st at districts.
“I didn’t put enough mileage in over the summer last season,” Myers said. “I had shorter runs throughout the year, so I decided to crack down on that this time and upped my mileage in order to stay intact for the whole season. That’s what’s really been motivating me.”
Elsewhere, the two breakout runners for Elizabethtown last season were senior Alex Hartman and junior Garrick English. The latter was the next highest finisher at districts behind Myers, placing 73rd. Hartman, meanwhile, led the Bears at leagues by taking 45th in his first season as a cross country runner.
“I actually know what I’m doing now,” Hartman said. “I’m definitely going for way faster times and better placements. I’ve been running a lot more on my own than I was last year, so I’m in way better shape.”
Several other boys are back from 2018 as well. Sophomore Nathan Johnson flashed as a freshman, while junior Nathan Barnhart was named team captain alongside Myers and Hartman, something that could give him a huge boost in confidence. Sophomore Wyatt Mummau was noted by Gallagher as someone with an “excellent work ethic” who could take a leap forward this year.
“They’ve been doing it for a while, so they pretty much know the basics,” Hartman said. “But sometimes, you just have to push them a lot more. I’ll admit that I slack a little bit sometimes too, but it’s pretty much just about putting the work in.”
“It’s a whole different dynamic when you’re a senior,” Myers said. “It all sets in, like, ‘this is your last year running in high school.’ You really want to make a statement out there, so that was big for me. I just want to go out with a bang.”
“It’s all about figuring out how to make that jump,” Gallagher said. “With the girls last year, it was a perfect storm. With the guys, they’re gonna have to win the close ones this year. You might have someone like Jesse, Alex or Garrick out in front, but they’re not gonna be dominant every time. There’s gonna be a lot of job openings across the league.”
Given the girls’ success last season and the large number of boys returning, Elizabethtown could be seen as an enigma heading into this season. Section One remains crowded throughout the standings, so things will certainly not be easy. There might be pressure to top themselves, but the Bears aren’t feeling it. They’re just gonna take one meet at a time.
“I would say it’s kind of the opposite,” Gallagher said. “We were so close with the guys we had last year, and they’re all coming back except for Nat. They’ve done a lot of stuff over the summer. The other thing is Maddie getting hurt. It’s like ‘Let’s be real here, we’re not going 10-0 again.’ But we got a couple of young sophomores who are new that could help us right away. I don’t think they realize how good they can be as a group. We know who the teams to beat are. We’re just gonna focus on what we have to do right now while staying healthy and enjoying what we’re doing. Once the meets come, we’ll see how we do.”