This season, there is a ton of talent returning to Western New York cross country teams, particularly on the girls side. And among that talent, something keeps jumping out -- there are a lot of eighth-graders running, and there are a lot of eighth-graders running fast.
This past weekend, Maple Grove won the Long Point Invitational with three eighth-graders in its lineup, including winner Caroline Benson. At one of the season's first events, Newfane won the Byron-Bergen Invitational with four eighth-graders running their first race. At East Aurora, eighth-grader Marta McLaughlin is one of the top runners for a team ranked first in the state in Class B.
While many coaches say that the amount of successful eighth-graders might be a cyclical statistic, it is certainly evidence of local teams getting deeper -- and better.
"I think Western New York is catching up to the rest of the state -- and New York is the class of the nation in cross country," said longtime coach Pete Szymanski, an assistant at West Seneca West and a member of the Section VI committee.
Szymanski went on to refer to the national powers like Saratoga Springs, Burnt Hills and Queensbury from Section II (Albany area) as well as Fayetteville-Manlius of the Syracuse area.
"Those schools tend to be the most successful, and part of that is I think that they're realizing that these seventh- and eighth-graders have the ability to make a mark," said Szymanski. "It seems like Western New York is starting to possibly catch on with that. . . . With those [national] programs it doesn't stop at varsity, it goes down to JV and even modified. You have good coaches bring kids through the system and it shows."
At East Aurora, McLaughlin is a unique example because while she has been part of the best program in Western New York, she's also the daughter of husband-and-wife coaching duo Walt and wife Marty McLaughlin.
Marta McLaughlin was a second-team All-Western New York selection last season and she finished second behind senior teammate Catherine Phillips at the West Seneca Invitational last weekend. And while she has certainly grown up in a cross country-centric household, she gets treated the same way by her EA coaches.
"We feel the same way about all the kids we coach in our program," said Walt McLaughlin. "I'm jokingly called their dad, which is funny, but it's kind of true. With Marta she's no different. At practice I'm not her father, I'm her coach."
In his last 10 years coaching elite cross country teams, Walt McLaughlin estimated he had six girls make the varsity as eighth-graders as opposed to just two boys.
"I don't think we have many eighth-grade boys because of the great physical differences there are between most eighth-graders and high school-age boys," said Walt McLaughlin. "Boys get bigger, stronger and faster as they get older. It's a special boy who can really compete at the varsity level, not just fill a roster. My thought is that it is very common for eighth-grade girls to run cross country and be very successful."
Coaches caution about too much running, too soon, however.
"As coaches we need to be careful not to just use [eighth-graders] to fill rosters as some schools do because they have trouble getting high school kids out for the team," said McLaughlin. "We must also bring them along and have a developmental plan the allows them to be successful over the long term. It's common to overtrain younger kids which leads to injury, frustration, and ultimately the athlete not competing as an upperclassman."
Szymanski has seen younger runners do well at a young age but then fall off later on.
"One girl I recall being a phenomenal eighth-grader but then she became just another runner on the team and didn't improve," he said.
McLaughlin said that consistent training is the key to having female runners that run well as youngsters continue to do so as they get older.
"There can be kids who are going to run better as seventh- or eight-graders who tend to run slower [when they're older]. That can be true, if they're not training," said McLaughlin. "If they are training in the offseason, they can maintain a high level of competition. Our goal is to have everyone improve so that generally the seniors are the fastest, not the ninth- or 10th-graders."
At Newfane, coach Mike Heitzenrater said having four eighth-graders in his lineup does alter his coaching approach.
"There's a big difference -- you have to really break down your workouts and explain why they're doing it," said Heitzenrater. "You have to show them how to train, when to train hard and when to take it easier. In running, your body needs planned breaks, so you have to try and have them learn paces. Ideally, you want them in the sport for four or five years and not have them turn their backs."
On the Web
For more names, notes and quotes as well as discussion about cross country, go to the Prep Talk blog at buffalonews.com/blogs.