Sacred Heart runners have standout cross-country season

The school wins a pair of state titles in the elementary-level varsity meets and has high finishers in other divisions as well

By Dan McWilliams

The Sacred Heart Cathedral School teams’ imprint was all over the middle and elementary school cross country state championships held recently at Victor Ashe Park in Knoxville.

Third-grader Keegan Smith won the elementary varsity boys state championship, while the Sacred Heart girls elementary varsity team captured the state title in its division.

“It’s unprecedented,” co-head coach Kathy Wolski said. “I think we made some school history, because cross country, unlike some of the sports, has no divisions — divisions in the sense of relationship to the school sizes — so we compete against every size school in the state.”

Keegan ran the 1-mile course in 5 minutes, 23.91 seconds, barely edging out fifth-grader Riley Hanson of Farragut Intermediate (5:23.97). There were 232 runners in the field.

Keegan and Riley “switched the lead two or three times,” Mrs. Wolski said. “[Keegan] didn’t lead in the beginning, the first 300 or so (meters), then he took the lead right around the halfway point, around 700 meters or so, and then they kind of battled it out a little bit. So it was a great race in terms of them bringing out the best in each other.”

Keegan “is a hard worker,” Mrs. Wolski said. “He’s so competitive, but he’s so coachable, and that’s a great combination. It’s a winning combination.”

Co-head coach Andy Sauter agreed about Keegan.

“He just had a fantastic year,” he said. “He actually won every race he competed in as a third-grader. He had a great year.”

The elementary girls cross country team finished first out of 15 schools.

“That was the group, we could tell a couple of seasons ago, that they were just bonding and that would be the key, because in a state meet when you have such a large race in terms of how many runners, it’s critical that the team runs together as a pack,” Mrs. Wolski said. “That’s what makes cross country an individual sport and a team sport. Those girls just ran together in a pack, just like they do in practice.”

Sydney Clements of Sacred Heart was sixth out of 192 runners in a time of 6:02.17.

“Sydney led on many of the races throughout the season,” Mrs. Wolski said. “She was very consistent.”

Keegan Smith (right) of Sacred Heart battles Riley Hanson of Farragut Intermediate for the elementary varsity boys state championship.

In addition, Ethan Ash, a fourth-grader from Our Lady of Perpetual Help School finished 31st in the elementary school competition and Finnigan Donnelly, a fourth-grader at St. Joseph School finished 108th, placing in the top half for the meet.

“We definitely had a great year, especially since our numbers were a little bit down,” Mr. Sauter said. “The results were great because we had such quality runners. That was a really pleasant surprise for this year. They had a great year. The elementary girls were the state champions. Last year the JV girls were the state champions.”

The Sacred Heart middle school girls team finished 10th out of 26 teams in the state meet. Callie Grace Tucker finished the 2-mile course sixth overall in 12:53.89.

“It’s been many, many years since the girls middle school has qualified as a team,” Mrs. Wolski said. “We’ve had individual runners qualify [for the state meet] multiple times, but that’s the first time with any of these girls and as long as I’ve been coaching that they’ve gone as a team to state, which is phenomenal.”

“All of our middle school teams did pretty well,” Mr. Sauter said. “The girls qualified for state, and they went on to come in 10th in state altogether. We have a small team, and the beauty of success with Sacred Heart is we’re competing against public schools that have massive amounts of runners and deep pools of talent, and [SHCS is] really able to hold their own.”

The Sacred Heart elementary girls JV team stood out at the state meet, too, with Molly Brinkman finishing second in 7:02.06, Marie-Veronica Kouakou 10th, Camille Hunt 11th, and Alexa Roth 13th.

“We had a number of girls who did really well,” Mr. Sauter said.

In middle school boys varsity action, Riley Smith of Sacred Heart finished 59th out of 312 runners.

Mrs. Wolski and Mr. Sauter have a successful coaching philosophy.

“For us it’s an issue of exposing the kids to what cross country is, and it’s all in the numbers,” Mrs. Wolski said. “If you get enough kids, you’re going to have just great camaraderie and great bonding, and that’s what drives these kids at this age, at the elementary age; it’s not just raw talent. It’s just basically them working hard for many weeks.”

That helps create a strong cross country program.

“I’ve been coaching for 12 years now, and when I first started it was a pretty small program,” Mr. Sauter said. “There wasn’t a lot of sophistication in the coaching. It was a lot of stopwatches and asking kids to run as fast as they can.”

Mr. Sauter said “if I can maximize each individual’s performance at the right time, then I can maximize the team’s performance, and that’s really been the philosophy. I never look at the kids and say, you have to win state or you have to do this. I try to coach each one individually, whether it’s the first runner or the last runner and basically say, you need to run to the best and the smartest of your potential, and if I’ve done that then I’ve done my job. That’s all I can do as a coach and not necessarily focus on the results.

“The kids hear it throughout the season. I always tell them, it doesn’t matter to me whether we come in first or last, as long as everybody runs good, solid races, they run smart, and they run to their potential, then we’ve done the best that we can. That really has helped everybody on the team feel like they’re a part of something bigger.”

Mr. Sauter watches every Sacred Heart runner in a meet, including those who aren’t near the front of the pack.

“I also make sure that the kids who are maybe not the fastest runners but who are running toward the end of the races, I watch them and give them advice and encouragement,” he said.

The Sacred Heart coaching philosophy seems to work.

“We have a lot of kids who come back,” Mr. Sauter said. “We have kids who’ve been running since third grade and run all the way through eighth grade.”

Many of the runners move on to Knoxville Catholic High School and to the college ranks, he added.

“The kids do a lot of work,” Mr. Sauter said. “It’s one of those sports where they show up at practice and they ask you what we’re going to do today, and my answer usually is, we’re gonna run.” ■

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