Shady Spring head cross country coach Eric Lawson normally has a little more pep in his step when August rolls around.
This year the fifth-year head coach is even more excited.
“I am always excited for cross country season. It’s my favorite sport of all time,” Lawson said. “Looking at the senior leadership and the mixture of youth that we have coming in this year, I am super duper excited to be working with them.”
Adding to the excitement for Lawson is the fact that the boys and girls teams are both primed for a strong season.
The boys are the defending Class AA Region 3 champions and that team was made up of all underclassmen. While the Tigers are clearly focused on a regional repeat, they also have their eyes set on a bigger prize, a first-ever boys state championship title.
“We talked about it at the end of last season. We looked back at the results together and noticed who all had seniors leaving and what that did for us,” Lawson said. “Our strong run at the regional meet really gave our guys a lot of confidence that they didn’t have beforehand. They have made a commitment and they are all in and ready to go. We are focused, but we aren’t dwelling on it every day and wearing ourselves out mentally.”
While Shady’s success has resulted in being solid throughout the line-up, the Tigers are led by two of the top runners in the state.
Junior Jacob Dowdy finished second at states last year and senior Jaedan Holstein came home just inside the top-20.
Dowdy made a late push for the individual title, finishing 1.3 seconds behind the winner, Brayden Marshall from Winfield.
“At the top of the course, I thought (Jacob) was just outside of striking distance of the two Winfield boys that went out really, really strong,” Lawson said. “Jake was just stronger over the last mile. When they came out on the track three-wide, I was so excited that I about jumped over the fence. He is just amazing.”
Forced to miss the cross country season as a freshman due to an injury, Lawson stated that Dowdy is even more motivated for the 2022 campaign.
“What has made Jake so special is his work ethic. Around his eighth-grade year, he just got ate up with competitive desire to be one of the best,” Lawson said. “It doesn’t stop with in-season stuff. He is running every day out of season too. He makes sure his diet and water intake is right, plus he does precautionary weight lifting to help prevent injuries. He is just all in and dedicated to running.”
Holstein has finished as the regional runner-up the past two seasons and has the potential to be a top-10 runner this year.
“Every year that Jaedan comes in, he has a new level of intensity. Back in September some things really clicked with Jaedan and he got down into the low 17 (minute mark) and border-line 16’s,” Lawson said. “I kind of challenged him to put in some extra work over the summer and he has responded. I think we may see a new level for Jaedan this year. He is ready to go.”
Flanking Dowdy and Holstein in the regional triumph last year was Sam Jordan, Eli Jordan, Eli Northrop, Garrett Hatcher and Zane Carothers who all finish 17th or better.
“These kids are so strong and work so hard every day. Kids like Eli Northrop and Garrett Hatcher on the back end with Zane Carothers, they want to get better,” Lawson said. “They want to not only move up on other teams, they want to move up on our team also. We have such a healthy competitiveness amongst each other. They have all been putting in the work. I had the best turnout for the three-week period that I have ever had this summer. I had roughly 20 kids out during that time.”
Part of that summer group for Shady has been a sold group of incoming freshman for the highly successful middle school program.
“I have several runners coming up that should be really tough,” Lawson said. “On the boys, and girls side, I have strong senior leadership, but I also have that talented group of freshman coming in on the tail end (of the seniors) and they can show them how to work.”
When Lawson took over as head coach at Shady Spring, he had a couple of goals in mind for the girls program. He wanted to see the girls qualify as a team for the state meet and also win the elusive regional title which hadn’t been done since 2011.
Last year the ladies accomplished the first goal with a runner-up finish at regionals to qualify for the state meet in Ona.
Now Shady is looking to build on that success, but winning the regional will be a tough task this year.
Graduation hit the Tigers hard, taking three of the top-6 runners from the regional team. Add in the fact that regional winner Nicholas County returns four runners from its championship team and the mountain gets a little higher for Shady.
Senior Charlotte McGinnis has been rock solid over her high school career and Lawson expects another strong season from her.
The remaining cast behind McGinnis will be a mix of youth and first time runners. One of the newcomers is the younger sister of Ryan Keffer who finished sixth in the regional last year as a senior.
“I am expecting some good things out of the girls. We know what we are going to get out of Charlotte. Ryan’s younger sister, Reece, is going to come out and run this year. Both of them are gymnasts and really competitive,” Lawson said. “Braylie Wiseman is coming out to run. She has a good motor from basketball and I am curious to see how that translates over to cross country. (Sophomore) Journey (Whistoff) is tough and she was right there with Ryan last year. I also have a first year runner that we think will be tough.”