The Woodland Park High School boys and girls cross country teams gathered at Meadow Wood Park for their usual morning run on Aug. 16. There was joking and good natured jabbing among the 30 or so runners who prepared for a jaunt through the woods.
“I know I'm extremely competitive and I don't want any of my friends beating me,” senior Michaela McDonough with a big smile. “In that aspect, I want to be the best one on the team. I don't care if it hurts somebody else's feelings. I want to be first.”
While she wasn't the top runner on the team in 2012, McDonough was a key contributor. She helped the Panthers girls' squad to a very respectable 15th-place finish at the Class 4A state meet in late October.
Woodland Park cross country coach Ron Payton seems to be more excited and more optimistic about his teams with each passing year.
“We have a good solid team coming back,” Payton said reference to the girls. “Maybe we can be top 10 this year. Maybe even top five. We'll see how this all works.”
Five of the seven girls who ran at last year's state meet are back; seniors Savannah Ebhert, Anne Fisher, McDonough and Brianna Austin, and junior Lexi Harrison. Another runner who likely will figure into the mix is senior Kelly Johnson.
“I think we have a really good chance to do really well, especially since we have a new coach this year,” Ebhert said.
Assisting Payton is accomplished distance runner Matt Levassiur. The 13-time all-American qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials in the marathon, where he finished 73rd. Levassiur narrowly missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials.
Levassiur is a teacher at Woodland Park High School. He ran collegiately for Adams State.
“He gives us new ideas for workouts and he can help us when we're running because he runs with us and pushes us,” Ebhert said.
Harrison had her best run of the season at last year's state meet, finishing 68th overall with a time of 21 minutes, 36.8 seconds. That was second on the team behind Megan Dillinger (66th, 21.35.4 seconds).
“It's going to be hard when I'm the only person back next year” Harrison said. “I love running with these girls. We help each other and push each other to do our best.”
Ebhert ran right behind Harrison at the state meet, finishing 71st (21.38.9). She was followed by McDonough (82nd), Fisher (114th) and Austin (195th).
The Panthers boys' team is an improving bunch that has its site set on qualifying for the state meet for the first time in years. David Higgins and Dustyn Rose are the only seniors among the top runners.
“The very last race we had it Pueblo last year our time between our 1-5 split was like 17 seconds,” Higgins said. “We know how to train better this year. We know each other really well. We're all really fast, too.
“We all have a good chance of making high 18s at the beginning of the year. If we can keep that up and keep pushing each other I think we'll be good enough for state.”
Among the other top runners on the boys side are juniors Sam Hopfe, Brent Vervalin, Charley Schoenberger, and twins Brett and Neil Oppendal.
The Panthers will take part in the Cheyenne Stampede (the pre state meet) Aug. 29 at Norris Penrose Events Center. More than 200 teams are expected to be at the meet.
The state meet will again take place at the Norris Penrose Events Center in late October.