Panthers sprinter Jonah Woods won the recent Big Blue Invitational at Muscatatuck County Park, running the 5K in 16:56.6.
The Panthers hosted the annual meet, so it is always a highlight of the season.
“I’d never coached anyone who won the Big Blue Invitational,” boys cross-country coach Cindy Mackey said. “He ran it in 80 minutes, so he was on pace for a seven-minute mile. It’s really special for him. Jonah is very humble, and he doesn’t usually show a lot of emotion; but I could tell he was excited to win.”
The Panthers finished fourth in a 12-team field in the invitational, impressive for the young Panthers. Mackey likes to motivate her team using quotes from distance runner Steve Prefontaine, who once said that success is measured by the distance a person travels from where he starts, not by how far he gets.
Because of its youth and inexperience, the team epitomizes this quote. Nine runners did not run high school cross-country before this season. The team’s first practice of the season of the season was in late July, but half of the runners waited until school began to join the team. These runners faced a steep learning curve to catch up to their teammates.
“Most of the boys already knew each other, so they had no problems fitting in,” Mackey said. “I like to ease runners in a little bit at the start of the season, but the boys who joined late had to adapt to our pace and work harder than everyone else.”
Mackey has accelerated the pace of practices this season to speed up her team’s development.
“We’re running more miles in practice this year,” Mackey said. “We’re often running as hard as we can for one or two minutes and then taking a break. They’re not getting as many easy days with 30 minutes of jogging this year. We’re also lifting weights, which is something we’ve never done before.”
The new workout routine is rewarding the team on the track.
“We have several runners who’ve dropped two to three minutes of time during the season,” Mackey said. “We’ve improved each meet, and I think we can improve more in sectional.
“Madison won our Big Blue Invitational and we want to change how some teams perceive us by beating them in the sectional.”
Even though Woods is only a junior, he already has become the team’s leader. He leads stretches during team workouts and has become an eager mentor to younger runners.
“He’s really matured this year,” Mackey said. “I always talk to the upperclassmen about being an example for the younger runners, but Jonah was the one who decided to lead stretches during our workouts and he has become a vocal leader. He really encourages the younger runners.”
Freshman Ricky Hendrix is a runner who has shown the same potential this season that Woods did when he was a freshman. Hendrix has become a top-three runner for the team this season.
“He’s lived up to my expectations this year,” Mackey said. “I knew about (Hendrix) when he was in middle school last year, and I knew he’d be good. He has natural talent for sure, and Ricky reminds me of Jonah when he was a freshman. Ricky still needs to mature a little more, but Jonah has really taken him under his wing, and he has been encouraging Ricky to do more than the bare minimum in practice.”
Mackey is encouraged by her team’s progress during the season, and she is eager to see how much the team will improve before the sectional.
Before Thursday’s Greensburg Invitational, Mackey thought her team could possibly win the event or finish second.
“We had a rough start to the season,” Mackey said. “But I’m pretty pleased with the team’s progress. Many of them are tough and want to run on the varsity. We seem to be improving faster than other teams are.”