“Being on the tightrope is living. Everything else is waiting.” – Karl Wallenda
That statement, by the patriarch of a high-wire family, is one quoted by coach Jon Knight as it applies to North Central cross country.
“To compete is to risk, but don’t be afraid of that,” Knight said.
NC’s Indians, led this year by Ben Johnston, compete Saturday for their fourth straight state title. After graduating three seniors who all finished in the top five during last year’s meet at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco, envisioning this possibility took a certain amount of optimism and entailed new athletes willing to take that risk.
Certainly the Indians had Johnston, fourth in state as a junior and the state’s top 3A returnee, Alex Avila (11th) and Casey Adams (24th) as a nucleus. But to make the dream a possibility, it took growth from newcomers whose improvement carried through the Indians’ waltz at regional last Friday.
“I think we kind of knew we were not going to be as strong, but that we could develop over time,” Knight said. “Both coach (Len) Long and I were saying we had to earn our coaches’ pay this year to bring this group along.”
Vince Hamilton, J.T. Mellgren, John Balch and Andrew Wordell, who ran at state as a freshman in 2007, gave NC its boost.
“We had growth from kids like Balch and Mellgren,” Knight said. “Casey developed and we got Andrew a little bit away from hurdling and into distance running. Probably the biggest surprise was Vince. Last year he was 22nd in the junior varsity (district) race.”
Hamilton, a junior, placed seventh during the regional varsity meet with a solid time of 16 minutes, 13 seconds.
Johnston said he didn’t envision the quartet being as good as they have become. He said they set out this summer to develop their own identity.
“They definitely put in a lot of training,” Johnston said. “They really wanted it.”
Much of that training was without Johnston. Second to senior teammate Andrew Kimpel in the state 3,200 meters last spring, and fourth in the 1,600 behind Kimpel and teammate Leon Dean – with a 4:13 time that ranked 10th in the nation – Johnston suffered an IT (iliotibial) band injury last summer and couldn’t train from early July. He spent time biking and doing exercises to strengthen the sinew that runs down the outside of the leg.
“The week before official practices began in August, it felt OK,” Johnston said.
It took much of the season to return to full shape before Johnston ran away with district and regional titles, the latter in 15:23.
Not bad for someone who didn’t seriously take up distance running until his sophomore season. Johnston was a baseball player first, but Long convinced him to run cross country.
“I said I’d try, but it wasn’t going to take me away from baseball,” Johnston said. “I was just trying to get through every day.”
Johnston fell in love with the camaraderie, worked hard in the summer with Kimpel, and burst upon the scene last year, saying it’s been a dream of his to be where he is now.
“He’s really emerged and Ben is still really young,” Knight said. “If this were the NCAA and college, he’d probably have another year.”
After last year’s national championship season, people asked if such success could be topped. But NC cross country isn’t about wins and losses, Knight said. It is to develop kids in terms of being productive adults.
“I look at the coaching gig and basically decided it needed to be more than coaching and just running,” he said. “I don’t know if it translates into faster times, but it gives people a sense of something here. My comment all along has been, if we measure success only by wins and losses I might as well quit, but since that is not the ultimate measure we will have success every year.”
NC cross country is an extended family. The development of this year’s NC runners into title challengers is the happy by-product.