KINGWOOD — Preston cross-country junior Cole Friend never knows where he might be running next.
“Coach always does a good job of getting us runners out to train in new places and in different ways,” he said.
Friend and his teammates’ last excursion was a three-day camping outing to run the Youghiogheny River Trail that spans Ohiopyle and Confluence, Pa. The Knights have also journeyed to Big Bear Lake in Bruceton Mills, Rowlesburg, and the Deckers Creek Trail in search of hills and mountains to challenge them on their runs.
The strategy comes from PHS coach Paul Martin, who likes to travel across the county and region for his team’s summer workouts.
“We do our summer workouts a bit different. We move from location to location to mix things up a bit,” he said. “Preston is so big geographically, so to be able to do these runs in different communities always benefits people. Another factor, of course, is to break up the monotony.”
For Friend, the workouts are a breath of fresh air. He feels they have done a great job of easing him back into cross-country shape while providing motivation for the team.
“The workouts he has had us do so far have felt really smooth, and the new kids that come to practices really seem like they want to be there,” he said.
Friend is the top returnee on a Knights boys’ squad that finished seventh at the state meet in Ona, last fall. Friend was eighth in the Class AAA boys’ race — best among 19 sophomores who ran the course.
Friend will be joined by four other varsity returnees including junior Trey Smith-Tatham, who is fresh off an outdoor track and field campaign that saw him qualify for the 800 meters at the state meet. With the talent and experience coming back, Friend has high expectations for the squad.
“With five returning runners, it shows that we could be something special. Four of us are juniors, and one a sophomore,” he said. “If we can stick together and get a full summer of training, we are definitely a top five team in this state. Maybe even a top three.”
The biggest challenge for the Knights will likely be finding a runner to fill the hole left by Ward Ries, who paced the Knights with a fifth-place finish at the 2017 state meet and earned the 3200 meter run state championship during his senior campaign.
Martin is aware that talent like Ries’ doesn’t come along too often, but he thinks he might have one even better in Friend this year.
“Losing Ward is a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “But we think Cole is in a position not only to duplicate what Ward did but contend for a state championship.”
Expectations like those can weigh a lot on a high school junior, but with the Preston cross-country community supporting him, he believes he can live up to them.
“With some great coaches, great teammates and a great mentor, I expect I have a good chance,” he said. “There are a bunch of talented runners contending this season, so if I was able to grab that championship as a junior, it would make all of the hard work, sweat and hurt worth it.”
On the girls’ side, the Knights return four varsity runners from a team that took fourth at the regional meet — one spot away from heading to state. This year, Martin expects things will be quite a bit different.
Senior Alexa Gorondy will help lay the foundation for the Knights as the top returnee, coming off a junior campaign where she nabbed 19th place at the regional meet.
Perhaps the true boost will come from a freshman class that is one of the most talented Martin has seen in years.
The incoming class will be paced by Ally Martin, a top middle school 2-miler who finished the outdoor track season nationally ranked in the 1600 meter run. She will be joined by Chloe Starks, Minka Amtower and Arrisyn Amtower in the top group of freshmen.
Martin expects all four to make an impact early.
“We have a nice group of newcomers,” he said. “The top four should all make a push for varsity.”
With the talent level as dense as ever on both the boys’ and girls’ squads for the Knights, the goals are the same across the board this year — and they’re pretty high. Then again, the goal never really changes.
“We’d like to be Big 10 champions and top-five in the state,” Martin said. “That’s our goal every year.”