Woodridge cross country teams aiming for state championship
A third straight state championship is not a pipe dream for the Woodridge boys cross country team and with six of its top seven runners back, the Bulldogs girls squad could also bid for a top five finish this fall.
Scheduling and navigating through the COVID-19 crisis safely must come first, but Woodridge will also make its debut in a new league this fall.
Head coach Jeff Howard, entering his 27th season overall and 23rd as head coach, has faced challenges before.
“The 2020 version of the Woodridge Cross Country program will likely have a number of twists and turns,” offered the mentor.
“The Bulldogs enter their first year in the newly-formed Metro Athletic Conference (MAC) after a successful run in the Portage Trail Conference,” he added. “Like everyone else, the Bulldogs will manage things differently as we work through the issues surrounding COVID-19.”
Obviously, the coach and the program have impressive credentials to cover the running part of the equation.
The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) named Howard the Ohio Coach of the Year in 2019. He also earned the Greater Akron Coach of the Year and last November, was named the OATCCC Boys Coach of the Year, and was the PTC Metro Coach of the Year.
For the 15th year in a row, both Bulldog clubs qualified for the state championships a year ago.
Incredibly, the boys program departed the Portage Trail Conference without ever suffering a single loss in a meet.
The Bulldogs boys took five of the top 18 individual finishes to win the Ohio Division II title with a Division II record low of 37 points total.
Woodridge broke their own state record in 2006 of 43 points in its 16th consecutive appearance at the state meet.
Howard’s girls unit placed ninth in Ohio in Division II, was a district runner-up and fifth in regionals.
In PTC Metro Division action, the girls captured the 14th team title in 15 years.
“The girls moved up into the top 10 at the state meet last fall with a much-improved 9th place finish and six of our seven state runners return,” said Howard.
Graduation took away 4-time state runner Libby Howard (Walsh University for cross and country and track), Allison Palm (Youngstown State for cross country and track), Rosie Sterling (Kent State) and Leah Stanfield (Texas Christian University).
“We return a host of state meet veterans and have a strong class of new runners as well,” Howard noted.
With 29 girls on the roster, seven with state meet experience, depth will continue to be a strength as we move into the racing season.
Top returnees include senior Anastasia Bakuhn, junior Izzy Best, junior Leighton Kline, senior Elise Carey, sophomore Joy McFarland, senior Leah Ziegler, senior Anna Wojcik, senior Evelyn Willett, and junior Thalia Johnston.
Bakuhn paced Woodridge at the state meet as she was 39th in Ohio, plus was the league runner-up and 21st at the regional meet.
“Anastasia was the top finisher in the state meet, is a tremendous leader and a disciplined worker,” said Howard.
Kline ran second for the team at the state meet (46th) while Best was 55th in Ohio and third in the PTC. Best is also a track All-Ohioan in the 800 meters.
“Our number two runner at states, Leighton, is a disciplined trainer and comfortable managing the discomfort associated with competitive distance running,” said Howard. “Izzy has great speed and talent and is a strong athlete.”
Carey is a veteran who also transitioned well from track to cross country. She ran 64th in Ohio, 32nd in regionals, and fifth in the PTC.
“Elise is a talented sprinter from track who ran a sub 20:00 for 5K last fall,” said Howard.
Also running in the state meet in 2019 were McFarland (100th in Ohio) and Ziegler (102nd in Ohio and 28th in districts), who is no stranger to big races.
“Joy is a gutsy performer that consistently moved up through the lineup and ran a great state meet,” said the coach. “Leah is a disciplined trainer that illustrates great resiliency and managed her first state meet experience.”
Wojcik and Willett are veteran seniors who are tested. Wojcik made second-team All-PTC last year and the duo placed 12th and 17th, respectively, in the 2019 PTC Meet.
“Anna is a consistent runner who ran in our top seven while Evelyn is a dedicated trainer, a versatile athlete and a great leader on the team,” offered Howard.
Johnston (23rd in the PTC) was plagued by injuries and could battle for a spot this fall.
“Thalia is a hard-nosed racer who managed shin issues last year and she may be expected to be in the top five in 2020,” said Howard.
Competition will be good as Reese Reaman heads a good freshman class.
In last year’s middle school results in the PTC, Reaman easily grabbed first-place. Other top freshmen are Eloise Willett, Rachael Seraimov, Kayla Mayner and Riley Yaiko.
“Reese is a great athlete and strong racer while Eloise is a gutsy performer who is the last member of a great Woodridge cross country family,” said Howard.
“Rachael is a great athlete new to the school, Kayla is tall, strong and athletic, and Riley has above average speed and solid athletic ability.”
The MAC includes Lodi Cloverleaf, Coventry, Field, Norton, Ravenna, Springfield and Streetsboro.
Cloverleaf was the boys runner-up last year to Woodridge in the PTC Metro while Field placed third. For the girls, Cloverleaf was the runner-up to Woodridge while Springfield was third.
For the boys, four-time All-Ohioan Micah Blair (5th in Ohio) has graduated. He was also was a regional and district champion.
Sam Dutt also ran in last year’s state meet and was 50th overall. Riley Galehouse will also be missed — he was a scoring member from the 2018 state title club.
It will a challenge for the boys repeat as champs across the board — league, district, regional, and state.
“The boys will move to win their third consecutive state championship this fall,” said Howard. “A win would be the Bulldogs’ 10th team title and would set a state record for boys team championships in Ohio history.”
Woodridge is tied with Caldwell High with nine Ohio crowns all-time.
“The boys program finished their time in the PTC without ever losing a meet in the conference,” Howard said.
“This fall, we return four of our seven runners from the state championship meet,” he added. “This includes the state’s top returner in senior Ryan Champa and fellow All-Ohioans Aaron Dutt and Andrew Lauck.”
A 2-time All-Ohioan, Champa placed sixth in the state and was a regional and district runner up to Blair. He was also the league runner up.
Howard is also excited about the return of Aaron Dutt and Lauck, who mirrored each other in the post season. Lauck was 17th in the state, eighth in regionals, and sixth in the district. Dutt was 18th in Ohio, seventh in regionals and fifth in the district.
Lauck is a senior and Dutt is a junior.
“Ryan Lauck is another state qualifier who is back,” said Howard.
Lauck also ran in the state meet and was 51st in Ohio and 30th at regionals.
Senior Caden Hibbs is also tested. He made second-team All-PTC and ran 14th in the league.
“Caden is fast, a strong athlete and a strong trainer,” Howard stressed.
Sophomore Seth Singer is another returnee who is expected to contribute along with returning juniors Will Holland, and Andrew Shaheen. Singer crossed 16th in the league race to earn honorable mention honors while Holland was 24th in the PTC.
“Seth had a great summer of training, Will is running super and is a positive role model, and Andrew is running well and is a great kid,” said Howard.
Top newcomers, according to Howard, are freshmen Sam Su, Steven Duffy and Erick Williams. In last year’s middle school results in the PTC, Su and Duffy ran 1-2.
“Sam is a talented, hard-working student-athlete who should challenge for a varsity spot,” said Howard. “Steven is tall, a strong athlete and a great runner and wrestler. Erick is a former soccer player and a strong athlete.”