MORGANTOWN — Things are a bit different this summer for Morgantown head cross-country coach Mike Ryan.
The Mohigans are in the midst of their WVSSAC three-week practice period, but the workouts aren’t carrying the same structure as in recent years. The MHS boys nabbed the Class AAA state championship last fall, in Ona, with the girls finishing as runners-up behind crosstown rival University.
But both squads are losing four runners from last season’s top seven to graduation.
With over half of Ryan’s varsity team made up of new faces, he decided it would be necessary to switch things around from how he has operated summer workouts in recent years.
“The seniors last year knew what I was going to say before I said it; coaching was different,” Ryan said. “It was about fine-tuning things.”
This time around, Ryan will be starting from scratch with a large number of his runners. It’s a challenge that has him excited.
“Really, this summer has been a lot about instruction. Going back to the basics, working on technique and teach the runners to do things with a purpose,” he said. “We have such a young team, so I’ve slowed things down from what I’ve done in the past during the summer. That’s been the big focus.”
By returning to fundamentals of the sport, Ryan hopes he can lay a foundation of athleticism and knowledge for his runners to build on once the season opens. It’s his intent to teach his athletes the components of being varsity runners before he throws them into the fire.
“For these practices, I really want to set a solid base we can build off of. Going back to instruction— form drills and running drills,” he said. “I want to teach them about diet, hydration and stretching. I want to set the foundation early with these kids. I want to focus on building strength and technique, and hopefully that carries on into the season.”
If all goes according to plan, Ryan hopes he can take two undeveloped teams and give them the tools to develop into their own runners by the time the season winds down.
“I see this team being a late bloomer. I think this team is going to progress and get better, and I hope to put this team back at the state meet and contending for a spot up on the podium,” he said.
Another component of Ryan’s strategy is to keep his runners healthy and on the course consistently for workouts and races. He expects that building proper technique and strength in his athletes first and foremost should help prevent injuries, which he identifies as one of the most common issues that stagnate a runner’s progress.
“I strongly believe a successful distance runner is one that can continue to train and build on their progress. Injuries can kill that consistency, and when you have to take weeks off, that kills their progression,” he said. “Our miles might not be where they were at this time of the summer in years past, but we’ll catch up in the end. I want to focus on building that strength, health and consistency.”
Returning varsity boys’ runner Michael Hoefler is buying into the new focus with as much vigor as possible. He considers himself blessed with such knowledgeable coaches, and is excited to see where they are headed with workouts and training this summer
“The great thing about our coaches is that they have so much experience and knowledge. They are always improving on our training plan,” he said. “I think the changes that have been put in place will help our team stay healthy and injury-free.”
With the change in approach, Ryan is happy with the results he has seen from his team during its sessions. He noted the team’s energy and chemistry as high points thus far, and he is optimistic about finishing the summer strong and taking the season by storm.
“It’s been great. For coming in and having so many new faces and being so young, the energy in really high. The kids seem eager to learn, and they take constructive criticism well,” Ryan said. “The kids enjoy being with each other. When that happens, they don’t mind the hard work it requires to get better. Personally, I’m very excited about this season.”
Hoefler, a sophomore, will look to lead the MHS squad on the boys’ side along with junior returnees Mikael Virji and Gideon Temple. Hoefler believes that for the young squad to attempt to defend its state championship this fall, the runners will have to put in the sacrifice starting now, but he sees it as a feasible goal.
“It is going to be no small feat to defend that title,” he said. “But if everyone on our teams wants it and is willing to put in the hard work, we’re going to succeed.”
Hoefler is eager to step into a leadership role as a returning varsity runner, and credits his readiness in large part to his teammates from last year’s championship team.
“I was given such a gift last year because my team was filled with leaders. Although many have graduated and moved on, we are still fortunate to have a strong leadership base here at MHS,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the girls’ side, the Mohigans will look to recover from the departure of four runners who will head off to begin their NCAA Division I careers this fall. Ryan looks for juniors Lauren Hancox and Athena Young, as well as sophomore Amelia Haddox, to step up and lead.
While returning to last year’s success for both squads will be a task, Hoefler is encouraged by what he has seen from his squad, and is looking for big things out of the MHS camp.
“I can definitely feel the gap left by the graduating seniors class, but I’m excited to be working with the upcoming freshmen and upperclassmen,” he said. “Summer practices are off to a great start, and we have some great talent.”