Most Thursday afternoons, about 40 minutes before school ends, more than a quarter of the student body at Elkhorn Mount Michael hits the road.
Sixty-two boys are on the Knights’ cross country team — a program high, and 15 more than the 47 on the football team.
“If I could have the whole school out for cross country I would,’’ coach John Gathje said. “I think the teachers would probably kill me, as well as the other coaches.’’
Gathje (pronounced getkey) says there are peaks and valleys in programs and right now Mount Michael is at a peak. The Knights won the Class B title last year, finished second the year before and fifth three years ago when their No. 1 runner was slowed by mononucleosis.
Cross country seems to fit the mold of athletes at the private boys school.
“A lot of the kids are disciplined and self-motivated, which plays into cross country,’’ Gathje said. “If you are going to be a successful athlete, especially with running, you have to be self-disciplined and self-motivated.’’
Gathje is hoping that peak continues this fall when he returns four of his top six runners. J.T. Cronin and Andrew Karstrom graduated, so he’ll turn to seniors Thomas Kalil and Jarrett Crnkovich to lead the way.
Kalil was runner-up at state last year and Crnkovich ninth. They’re in a group of five seniors who’ve run for four years that Gathje estimates has a GPA of around 3.9.
Junior Marcus Cronin and sophomore Sam Van Haute also will be in the top four. Junior Thomas Wooten and freshman Peyton Hottovy fill the final two spots on the varsity. Hottovy’s time of 11:44 in a time trial last week in the heat was the best ever for a freshman.
Kalil said cross country brings out the really dedicated runners who want to push themselves and the more laid-back people who want to hang out with friends and run a few miles.
He’s one of the dedicated types, running about 700 miles over the summer to get ready for the season.
“Cross country allows both of these sets of people to work together for a common goal and have fun,’’ he said.
Crnkovich likes that it’s such a team-oriented sport. He loves the team traditions, like the chants the team does on the way home from meets.
“Most of my better friends are on the cross country team,’’ he said. “It’s a great place to develop friendships and your work ethic and character. It’s a way to push yourself.’’
Gathje has been coaching the team for about 23 years. He started with 15 kids and then one year that ballooned to 42. The past several years, there’s been around 50 to 55 on the team.
There’s no secret to his success. It’s luck, hard work and avoiding injuries and illness at the state meet.
Scottsbluff will be the team’s biggest challenge to repeat. The Bearcats, who were second at state, are ranked No. 1 with their top three runners back. That includes state champion Matthew Barraza, as well as Anthony Parra, who placed third, and Brendan Taedter, who was 11th. Ben Willis-Teff, on the winning 3,200 relay team at state with Barraza, also returns.
A second-place finish at state in cross country and track should help this fall.
“We have a very good team,’’ Scottsbluff coach Jim Barker said. “We’re looking forward to a great season.”
Gathje says Lincoln Pius X and Seward also could be in the mix. He just hopes the No. 2 Knights are there, too.
“I would hope we could be one of the top teams,’’ Gathje said. “We want to be competitive every year, and I think we can do that.’’