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Improving a Cross Country Team Quickly with "New Blood"

Bill Meylan (July 1, 2007)



It's no secret my interest in handicapping horse races pre-dates my dabbling with high school cross country evaluation.  For those who have asked, I first got into handicapping horses during the summer months of my colleges years ... I attended Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University) for engineering and science.  I was fortunate to get a summer job working for Niagara Mohawk Power Company in Syracuse.  As luck would have it, my immediate supervisor turned out to be the company bookie ... he was putting his kids through college via the "misfortunes" of hard working company employees.  One day he was gloating about it, so I grabbed the Vernon Downs program sitting on his desk and made the first bet of my life ... I won ... it's still a matter of opinion whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.

I made periodic trips to both Vernon Downs and Finger Lakes Race Track (for the the purpose of a "continuing education" in both harness racing and thoroughbred racing).  I got to know a number of owners, trainers, drivers and jockeys ... I even got my brother interested who now owns and helps train a small stable of horses at Vernon.  One day in the mid-1970s, I was sitting in the Vernon Downs clubhouse talking to one of the trainers ... Many trainers have the luxury of working for rich owners who spend lots of money buying horses for their stable.  Well, his rich owner came over and sat down at the table ... To quote the rich owner, "The stable is not as strong as I would like ... We need some new blood" (meaning, let's go out and get some new horses).

In Terms of Cross Country, What is New Blood??

The term "new blood" has descriptive appeal ... I use the term to designate any runner that did not compete for a team's main varsity team the prior year.  When looking at the title of this article ("Improving a Cross Country Team Quickly..."), initial thoughts go straight to an occurrence of a top runner transferring from one school to a different school ... Clearly, that is a major possibility ... However, there are other ways a team can get "new blood" ... Here are some possibilities:

(1) Transfer from one school to another school

(2) Transfer from another sport to cross country within the same school

(3) A runner from another country (Who could I possibly be thinking about? )

(4) Incoming 7th Graders that jump straight to the Varsity team

(5) Junior Varsity runners moving up to the main Varsity level

(6) Junior High runners moving up to the main Varsity level

I can think of examples of all the above possibilities that made major improvements in various teams ... Incoming junior high runners and improved junior varsity runners have a positive impact on many teams every year, so the effect of "new blood" is widespread ... In addition, somebody must replace the graduating seniors, and sometimes the "new blood" does it very well indeed.

As a person who like to predict the outcome of races (or the general quality of a team), "new blood" can be something of an enigma ... Sometimes it's effect is easy to see ahead-of-time ... Sometimes there's no way of knowing until after it happens ... "New Blood" produces precarious pre-season prognostication.

That's the bottom-line of this article ... The upcoming fall season has uncertainties ... "new runners" being the biggest uncertainty ... Will there be any "new blood"? ... Where is it coming from? ... What will the effect be? ... Sometimes only actual race results can answer these questions.

Here are some examples that illustrate "new blood":

Transfer from One School to Another School

Section 2 of NY has demonstrated some great examples of "quick team improvement" through transfer from one school to another (and these transfers had State and national implications).  The most recent involves Steve Murdock's transfer from Saratoga to Shenendehowa in 2006.  In 2005, Steve helped Saratoga win the boy's NTN Championship ... His transfer in the fall of 2006 immediately promoted Shenendehowa from being a good team at the State-level to a team capable of contending at NTN.

Shenendehowa got a second transfer in 2006 ... Mike Danaher transferred from CBA-Albany (although he was already living in the Shenendehowa school district but attending a private school).

What was the effect of Steve Murdock's transfer? ... Shenendehowa beat Collegiate and FM at Federations by a respective score of 98, 151 and 154 ... In the team scoring, Murdock was 3rd and the #6 Shenendehowa finisher was 70th ... So without Murdock, Shenendehowa would have finished 3rd behind Collegiate and FM (and not gotten a bid to NTN) ... and Steve Murdock would not have won the individual title at NTN.

The biggest transfer example from Section 2 involved the break-up of the Argyle girl's team with major transfers to Saratoga and Greenwich in the spring of 2004 (link to story concerning the Argyle break-up).

Hannah Davidson and Caitlin Lane transferred to Saratoga ... Emily & Ashley Fung (and others) transferred to Greenwich ... Saratoga already had Nicole Blood and Lindsey Ferguson, so the addition of Hannah Davidson and Caitlin Lane created the best girl's high school cross country team in history (and "effects" don't get much bigger than that) ... Saratoga easily won NTN in 2004.

Of course, this is Section 2 we're talking about, so the story doesn't stop there ... Nicole Blood and Caitlin Lane eventually left the Saratoga team to run independently ... Caitlin Lane eventually transferred to Greenwich (who won the State Class C Championship last year) and Nicole Blood transferred to Royal in California.

As another example of "new blood", the Argyle Girls (as 7th-graders) are discussed below.

Rumors ... Every year I hear rumors ... most involve Section 2 ... this year is no exception ... most rumors turn out to be false (thank goodness) ... So I'll ignore the rumors until that they come true.


Transfer from Another Sport to Cross Country within the Same School

Recruiting is alive-and-well in public high schools ... I mean "encouraging" talented athletes to switch from one sport to another where they can realize their full potential ... cross country anyone?  This category also includes talented runners who play no sports during the fall and decide to improve their lives through cross country.  I'm sure most viewers can think of examples within their own school ... This is a time-tested method of getting "new blood".

The perfect example from last year is Kathyrn Buchan (Fayetteville-Manlius) ... Entering the 2006 season, I knew Fayetteville-Manlius was getting "new blood" from soccer transfers, but I had no idea how many transfers or their level of ability in terms of 5K distance running ... My pre-season preview put FM as #7 in the Northeast (and I was surprised they were that high) ... That pre-season preview did not include sophomore Kathryn Buchan because I had no idea who she was ... So sometimes unknown "new blood" can have a huge impact!

Kathryn Buchan finished 5th at NTN and 6th in the team scoring at NY Federations ... not too shabby for a first-year runner! ... And FM had two other "new blood" runners (8th-grader Courtney Chapman and freshman Molly Malone).  Theoretically, had Buchan not finished the race at Feds, FM would have finished a close second to Hilton and still beaten both Saratoga and Burnt Hills (which says a lot about the overall strength of the FM team and the contribution of their other "new blood") ... Sometimes unknown "new blood" produces a National Champion ... And FM may be getting more "soccer-transfers" this coming season to replace the three graduating seniors on the NTN team.

As a side-note ... I have seen many instances where sport-transfers or track-runners with good times compete in cross country for the first time and do not produce the impact expected ... It makes pre-season prediction uncertain even when you know about it.



Incoming 7th Graders that jump straight to the Varsity

This has to be the best example ever: ... the Argyle Girls in 2002 ... The photo was taken at Federation Championships 2002 ... The four Argyle 7th-graders shown in the photo are (from left to right) Hannah Davidson, Caitlin Lane, Emily Fung and Ashley Fung ... 7th-grader Brittania O'Keefe was also one of the top seven runners.

In 2002, the Argyle girls won the State Class D Championship at Sunken Meadows (over Beaver River and Bronxville) and finished 3rd at Feds (behind Saratoga and Honeoye Fall-Lima) ... Not bad for a group of 7th-graders!

In 2003, the 8th-grade dominated Argyle team finished 2nd at Feds to Saratoga (the #1 ranked team in the nation ... Argyle was probably one of the five best teams in the nation in 2003) ... (Then they disappeared).


Getting a Runner from Another Country

Since I'm from Tully, the obvious example is Lopez Lomong ... The photo of Lopez shown here was taken in 2001 (his sophomore year at Tully) ... Interesting to notice how much younger Lopez looked as a sophomore in high school as compared to his senior year or now as collegiate champion at Northern Arizona University (yes, I looked for a photo that showed his "youth").

Lomong's story as one of the "Boys from Sudan" has been well-publicized.  He came to Tully through the efforts of his foster parents Rob and Barb Rogers.  When Lopez first arrived in the US, he was expecting to play soccer for the high school (he had never run a track race, cross country race or road race), but he was running many miles every day for soccer training.  Rob Roger's natural son had run XC for Coach Jim Paccia at Tully ... as soon as Rob saw Lopez running, he called Jim (who lives just down the road) ... Jim jumped in his car and chased Lopez ... Jim convinced Lopez that the best thing he could do for his education towards college (which was very important to Lopez) was run cross country ... So the Tully soccer team lost a star without knowing one existed (I could put this in the soccer-to-XC category).

Dominic Luka came to Tully as a transfer from Nottingham High School in Syracuse ... His transfer to Tully was the end-result of some rulings and efforts by the NY Social Services Dept ... Social Services ruled that Dominic's residence in Syracuse had too many "boys from Sudan" and Dominic would have to leave (and go to a residence with authorized foster parents) ... Social Services could not find any suitable residences in the immediate Syracuse area, and as a last resort, they called Rob Rogers (Dominic could have been sent to the NYC area or back to Kenya) ... The Rogers were scheduled to receive another "boy from Sudan", but after the 9-11 attack on NYC, everything was put on hold ... Social Services asked Rob if he would be willing to take in another boy from the Syracuse area and Rob said yes without knowing it was Dominic Luka ... Rob knew that Lopez and Dominic were friends.  Soon after, Rob drove to the school and found Jim Paccia and myself ... he told us Dominic Luka was coming to Tully ... we thought he was joking! ... Sometimes "new blood" is the result of good old-fashion "luck" (or "good living" as Coach Paccia might say).

The year before Lomong came to Tully (2000), Tully won their first-ever State Class title in  XC ... In the three years that Lomong ran for Tully (and two years for Luka), Tully won only one State Class title (in 2003) ... Lomong and Luka ran one-two at the Federation Meet in 2003 and one-two at State Class meets in both 2002 (at Sunken Meadows) and 2003 (at Marcus Whitman).


Junior Varsity Runners Moving Up to the Main Varsity Level

Had to include Nicole Blood in a discussion of "new blood" ... photo shown was taken at the Federation Championships in 2001 when Nicole was an 8th-grader at Saratoga (Nicole finished 4th in the race behind Molly Huddle, Tracey Brauksiek and Laurel Burdick ... Saratoga won the race over Bronxville by a score of 36 to 159) ... So Saratoga's "new blood" certainly helped.

As a 7th-grader in 2000, Nicole Blood was typical of many talented junior high female runners in Section 2 ... they are classified up to compete at a varsity level.  However, Nicole did not compete on the main Saratoga varsity squad as a 7th-grader ... she finished 2nd in a JV race at the Manhattan Invite (with a time of 15:52 that was 12 seconds slower than Saratoga's #7 runner in the Eastern States division of Manhattan) ... she won the Suburban Council Frosh race in 2000.

The following year (2001), Nicole was the top runner on the Saratoga team ... She was the Federation champion in 2002, 2003 and 2004 ... She was a four-time Footlocker Finalist ... So JV runners can go on to bigger and better things!

Nicole Blood has one unique claim to fame ... she discovered the "Nicole Blood Trail" at Sunken Meadows during the 2002 State Class Meet ... unfortunately, the trail did not lead to the finish-line ... Saratoga still won the Class A Championship by 52 points.


Junior High Runners Moving up to the Main Varsity Level

New York State allows 7th and 8th-graders to run varsity ... This is a major factor in girls racing (but only a minor factor for boys) ... In NY State, a typical State Class Meet may contain between 40 and 50 girls in 7th or 8th-grade (out of roughly 575 female runners) ... Most junior high runners don't make the main varsity team unless they are decent runners, so these youngsters usually have some effect.

In addition, some really talented 7th and 8th-graders in NY do not run varsity ... they remain on the Junior High (or modified) team because their schools discourage the "classifying-up" process or their parents want them to run junior high ... So when they become freshman, they enter the "new blood" pool and some runners can have a huge impact on team performance.

Although New York State allows 7th and 8th-graders to run varsity, some States nationwide do not permit it ... So occasionally, in-coming freshmen ("new-blood") may propel a team to national prominence.  A good example from last year is Midlothian VA ... in-coming freshmen twins Leia & Kathleen Lautzenheiser helped elevate an already good team to one of the best teams in the country ... Midlothian won the Manhattan Eastern States Championship race over top NY teams (such as FM, Hilton and Saratoga) and Midlothian was the #2 ranked team nationally entering NTN (Harrier Magazine).