BERKLEY – Berkley High cross country coach Jared Purcell remembers when he ran cross country for the Bears some eight years ago. He remembers sitting around the campfire with his teammates at running camp talking about how cool it would be if the team could win a league championship.
It didn’t happen. In fact, it has not happened since 1992 when both the boys’ and girls’ teams won league titles. When then middle-school cross country coach Purcell took the reins of the high school team four years ago, he thought it was possible for the Bears to compete for a league title in four years. In this, Purcell’s fourth season with Berkley, the Bears are in the mix with the boys sitting atop the OAA Blue and the girls tied with Birmingham Groves for the top spot.
“Everyone can feel the buzz every time we line up at the starting line,” said Purcell. “We know we have a chance to log a historic season and everyone is thinking about that. But we are trying to be serious about it because we know at any time things can change. Someone can go down, someone can have a bad day, you just never know.”
Senior Nicole Johns is seasoned enough to understand what her coach is talking about. She has battled injury this year and also has encountered some race-day circumstances that have affected performance. For example, the Oakland Community College cross country track where the most recent OAA Blue Jamboree was held on Sept. 24 has been a challenge for Johns as well as some of her teammates due to its winding route.
“OCC is definitely challenging because they don’t spray paint it so you forget how the course goes every year,” said Johns. “This is the fourth time I’ve run there but they don’t paint it or label it well enough and the varsity girls got mixed up at the end of the race last week. It really gets confusing.”
The Berkley girls came in second to Groves at that meet with the Falcons edging them by just nine points.
“I told the girls it was close and we had a target on our back and Groves really came after us,” said Purcell. “Nicole was sick and was not 100 percent but we are just trying to find the depth in our fifth runner right now.”
Senior Sebastian Betzer has also battled injury this season and thus far has been about a minute off of last year’s personal best time of 16:15. He sees this season as the culmination of a journey that started back when he was in middle school. Getting the Bears to this point where they are league leaders has been a matter of experienced runners getting faster and smarter, young runners bringing enthusiasm and some unexpected talent, and every runner doing what they have to do to snare victory.
“I think that we have had great runners over the years and this year we have also had young talent that have stepped in made a difference,” said Betzer. “Andrew Bill has been running out of his mind. He is getting ridiculously fast and he is only a sophomore. Ryan Schildcrout, another sophomore, came out of nowhere to fill up one of the last couple varsity spots. And (sophomore) Ian Annesser is stepping up more than anyone could have imagined. We all just try and focus a lot on personal times and together we try and figure out how to run a better race and what kind of splits we need to win.”
Unlikely heroes have stepped to the forefront. Bill was the top runner at both OAA Blue jamborees. Senior Tommy Porter has also been very reliable and Zach Schildcrout has added to the mix too. Betzer says the young runners have taken race strategy advice from the seniors to heart and have evolved over the past months.
“We had a lot of freshman running varsity last year and this year we returned a lot of guys so we have experience but we are still pretty young,” said Purcell. “Everyone has been answering the bell and we have been improving. At the OAA Blue jamboree we had our entire top five place in the top 10 of the race which is something we have never done before. So our boys really have stepped up to the plate.”
Purcell says there is no secret method that accounts for the Bears’ success this year. It was simply a matter of his runners logging a lot of miles in the off season. Purcell challenged his runners to up their mileage for 2013 and without exception, his runners complied.
“Sebastian put in his highest mileage for summer training this year,” said Purcell. “The sophomores all wanted to run with him; no one wanted to hold back. You don’t want to overload your runners too much but we are just trying to go for it. We wanted to make sure we are doing everything possible to put us in a wining spot.”
Johns too has found it difficult to beat last year’s personal record time or 19:59, but she has come close to beating it this year and has a goal of doing so before the end of the season. As with the boys, many of the younger runners are challenging that time and thus pushing Johns to challenge herself. The result: everyone runs faster.
“If we did not have each other we would not be doing as well as we are this year,” said Johns. “We are really close and pay attention to each other. We know where we need to improve and who to look after and who to push. A lot of people who are new to the team or who have really improved have come up as fast as I am and have beat me in a few races which has pushed me to do better. We all end up being faster in the end.”
Freshman Lily Coker has stepped up and contributed. She attended the Bears cross country camp in the summer, worked hard and has come into her own the past couple of weeks.
“I did not expect her to be one of the top varsity runners,” said Purcell. “She was the fifth finisher in the last two jamborees and hopefully she can continue to improve.”
Freshman Aniella Crayton has finished first at two meets and is exceeding expectations for the 2013 season. Junior Megan Kossak has steadily shaved second off her time and Purcell considers her one of his core runners. Junior Kylie Krowlikowski is a rookie on the varsity team and is someone who could contribute late in the season. She spent the summer doing marathon training with her aunt and might end up being a key runner at the league championship and beyond.
“Kylie has been out the past couple of races so it is a question mark as to how good she will be,” said Purcell. “She has not gotten a lot of racing experience. But overall we have some aggressive runners which is something we need to have.”
Purcell took the focus of personal bests for the most recent OAA Blue jamboree and instead honed in on competitiveness.
“I was not worried about time, just competitiveness,” said Purcell. “The more people you beat, the faster you are anyway. We are in the drivers’ seat now. Even if we get second place at the League Championship meet, we can still get a share of the league title and we are really set on doing that in October.”
As luck would have it, the OAA Blue league championship meet is on Berkley’s home turf at Catalpa Oaks Park on Oct. 17. The track is not well loved by most runners because it is hilly and thus tends not to be a fast track. The Berkley runners may not like those hills any more than other competitors but they are more familiar with the challenging track and may be able to deal more easily with its challenges.
“Most people do not like the Catalpa course,” said Johns. “But I think it is better that the championship course is at our home course. We know how the course goes, we know there are steep hills. “We still don’t like it either but we are more used to it than most of the other runners.”
To add to the season’s ambiance, many of the Bears have been running for Purcell since they were in sixth grade and he was Berkley’s middle-school coach.
“This is a special year for me personally,” said Purcell. “This is a milestone year for me and for us to be challenging for the league title, well, it would be the perfect going away for the seniors and kids like Sebastian who have been running for me since the sixth grade.”
Betzer is as excited as anyone about the possibility of the Bears taking at least a share of the OAA Blue title this year. But the Bears’ most seasoned runner has learned to focus more on the joy running brings to his life on a daily basis. When he puts the enjoyment first, faster times tend to follow. In middle school, Betzer embraced running because he was good at it and because it was fun to win. But now, it goes deeper.
“I always look forward to running and it is a huge part of my life,” said Betzer. “Our season may end in November but I run all year round and Jared has been a huge part of making running something I can really enjoy all of the time. As much as this year has been great because we are doing really well, for me as a person it means a lot more. As I have grown up, I appreciate other things about running. I don’t just do it because I’m good at it anymore.”