By Tony Burns
El Dorado’s cross country season doesn’t start until Sept. 1, but Coach John Koonce has been off and running for months as he prepares for his second season. The program will have 35 runners between grades 7-12.
Koonce will allow a short window at the beginning of the school year to recruit more athletes or allow other students the opportunity to come out for the team.
“I have been very pleasantly surprised with the participation since I have arrived,” Koonce said. “However, all credit is due to the athletes. When I arrived in the summer of 2017, there was already a very strong core group of runners and these guys did an excellent job of recruiting their friends to come out. Then their friends turned around and did the same things and we have kind of seen a snowball effect since then. The school district also allowed us to start a junior high program which obviously did a lot to promote growth. It is tough to have a strong varsity program without a solid foundation at the junior high level and I believe we will see that start to pay dividends in the years to come.”
The athletes spent their summer vacation running the roads.
“We started at the beginning of June, a week after school let out, and we have been working all summer,” Koonce said. “I’ve been pleased with the attitude and the work ethic that the kids have shown this summer. It isn’t easy to get out there in that summer heat and put in the miles but the kids have done so with an excellent attitude.”
“We are excited about the growth of the team both in number of athletes as well as how hard they have worked over the summer,” added assistant coach Rachel Gavin. “Compared to last year, they have really advanced in their endurance levels early in the year. We hope to add additional junior high runners. The ability to compete as a team improves the retention of runners and adds to the excitement of the program.”
The numbers are still low for the varsity girls with just five runners, so far. Last year, El Dorado finished the season with just two senior varsity girls. Koonce hopes some newcomers will pump a little life into the program.
“Melanie Miller and Alivia Zartuche have both added a spark to the team. Melanie is an incoming sophomore and Alivia is a senior who ran track but didn’t run cross country last year,” he said. “For the junior high girls team, I look for freshman Addy Taylor to really build on the success that she had last year. As a team, I look for the junior girls to be the most improved. The numbers are up and I am excited about all of the growth that the returning runners have shown. There are a few incoming seventh grade girls that I think are going to grow as the year goes on that will help take the team to the next level.”
El Dorado’s boys program has enjoyed more success and enters this season with more experience and more depth.
“For the varsity boys team, returning senior Hudson McDiarmid has had a very strong summer,” said Koonce. “He has been very focused all summer. He went down with an injury in the middle of the season last year and he wasn’t able to compete at all in October or November so he has come back with a fire that has been very infectious. The varsity boys team had more success than our other teams last year and I look for them to improve on that success.
“For the junior high boys team, I look for returning eighth grader Austin Richard to be our leader. He has been focused and hungry all summer long. There are a few guys that are going to have to step up in order for the junior boys to improve as a team, but the potential is there.”
Koonce, who is the nephew of Lake Hamilton’s legendary cross country coach Karl Koonce, said he wants to establish a solid distance running program at El Dorado. To do that, he needs steady progress every year, beginning with this year’s team.
“We want to continue to build on last year,” he said. “We will have goals for every meet that we go to. There is only one meet that is different from last year’s schedule, so the most obvious goal will be to improve the average finish time at each meet as a team. We will also target teams that we weren’t able to beat last year.”
Keys to reaching those goals?
“The most obvious key will be individual improvement for the kids that are returning from last year. Cross country is a sport where the results are very concrete. Those times aren’t going to lie. If we are going to be better as a team, then the kids have to improve individually and I think we have a group of kids that are motivated to do just that,” said Koonce. “Then you have to look at the new kids and see what they bring to the table. I am very excited about all of the kids that are new to the program. There will be new runners from all four of our teams that will cause our team score to improve. The last key is to stay injury free. Cross country is a sport with a lot of nagging, minor injuries that can turn into major injuries if they aren’t cared for properly.”
El Dorado’s first meet will be the Warrior Invitational in Texarkana on Sept. 1.