Lakewood's fastest are even faster

LAKEWOOD — It's tradition. Every year, the Lakewood cross country team begins its fall practice schedule with a 12-hour mega practice.

Culminating in a marathon relay the team uses to raise money for the Cougars' annual cross country camp, the boys and girls break down into small teams which must keep a member on the track at all times, with each participant going a mile before handing off to someone else.

With a few hours left until practice ended at midnight, some runners awaited their turn covered in sweats and blankets on the stadium seating, sitting in quiet conversation with teammates. Others divided into teams and tossed a soft green frisbee, about two feet in diameter, the short distance of the field's east end zone.

An enlightening part of the practice came at the very beginning, when runners ran 3k time trials. Relatively insignificant to determining varsity teams, time trials are most useful as an indication of runners' work accomplished over the summer. In the six to seven years Lakewood has timed runners over 3k, only one runner has been faster than seniors Taylor Guske and Chad Skiles were Aug. 24 — Chad's older brother Scott, a runner-up in the 2A state meet his junior year in 2005.

A defending conference champion last year as a junior, Lakewood cross country coach Jeff Sowards said he believes Guske's work and talent put him among the best runners in the state in any classification.

"If we ran a race, he'd be as fast or faster today than he was at the end of track season," Sowards said, adding of Guske's pace for a 5k, the standard in fall cross country competition, "If he ran a 15:35 in the 5k, there's only a handful of boys in the state, any class, who could compete with him."

That would also be about a 40-second improvement over his best time from last year, when he won the Hole in the Wall invite at Lakewood.

Based on time trials, Skiles and junior Trent Tresch are poised to have excellent seasons as well, each coming in under 10 minutes over the course equivalent to 1.86 miles. All three boys, along with returning senior Nick Howe, who competed in the 800 at state track last spring, are veterans of last year's state-qualifying squad.

Big improvements have also taken place this summer for several varsity runners on the girls side. As a senior last fall, Lacey Nation set a school record for the 5k, but time trials indicate that record may be short-lived. Junior Chelsea Stokes and sophomore Rachel Cundy fairly substantially bested Nation's time-trial mark from last year, coming in with times of 11:11 and 11:14 for the 3k.

"If they're 45 seconds faster than Lacey, that's really fast," Sowards said.

Senior Chelsea Sowards also ran a comparable 11:50 earlier this summer and fellow senior Amber Burnell clocked a 12:25. While last year's girls squad ran within about a minute from the fastest to fifth or sixth girl, usually a sign of a strong team, the team's fastest three girls have shown such improvement, Sowards estimated that gap has widened to about a minute and a half.

"We're probably stronger through three girls than we've been in several years," he explained.

On the boys side, senior Mitchel Gogert, sophomore Kris Mugrage and newcomer Connor Dryer should compete to round out the varsity seven. The girls graduated only Nation from the varsity squad last year, leaving varsity veterans junior Tasha Bartol and sophomore Mikaela Skiles leading the competition to fill out this year's squad.

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