Harriers hoping to show improvement in '09

Ray Maloney, Sports

By Ray Maloney

Journal Sports Editor

DEVILS LAKE – Distance running, if you pay attention to some shoe commercials on television, can be considered a lonely endeavor, but, on the other hand, success in cross country can only come by running in packs.

Devils Lake High School coach Curt Kukert is hoping that is the case often throughout the 2009 season, which got under way for the Firebirds Aug. 21 at the Jamestown Invitational.

And there are plenty of reasons for Kukert to be optimistic. A total of 38 candidates reported when fall practice got under way earlier this month in preparation for the Jamestown event, which has long been the unofficial opener of the cross country season in North Dakota.

The Devils Lake boys will be looking to show improvement this season. Last year the Firebirds finished 13th at the state meet, something that pleased the Devils Lake mentor and has him looking for an even greater showing this season.

“We were really happy with where we finished last year,” Kukert said. “Everyone ran their PR and that led to the team’s success. This year we hope to crack the top 10. That could be an uphill battle, but we have a lot of seniors and if they run just a little bit faster this year that's within our grasp … and sixth would be sweet.”

Such a lofty improvement over a year ago is not outside the realm of possibilities this season, which culminates with the state meet in Valley City.

“They have all trained hard over the summer and run their butts off,” Kukert said. “They are a dedicated group who has done whatever I have thrown at them and embraced it wholeheartedly.”

Senior Travis Mack is expected to be one of the top harriers for the Firebirds this season. He finished 58th at the state meet a year ago, and trailed teammate Owen Alphonso across the finish line. Alphonso was the top finisher for Devils Lake with his 46th-place finish last season.

Lee Mack (144th) and Jesse Reardon (150th) are also expected to improve on their state placing from 2008, while Michael Sugge, who missed the state meet, is expected to battle for high finishes this season, according to Kukert.

Such lofty expectations do not exist on the girls side of the ledger, at least not in the immediate future. According to Kukert, the Firebirds are a powerhouse in the making.

“Our top four were all eighth graders last season … we were young pups,” Kukert said.

That being the case, those five, with at least a year of varsity experience to their credit, should move up in the EDC standings, where the Firebirds finished 9th last season.

“With the talent we have returning, we're ready to be more aggressive,” Kukert said. “We're hoping to finish in the top five at the conference meet.”

McKenzie Hartl, who finished 59th at the state meet last season, along with Randi Widmer and Christa Lynse, who finished 89th and 90th, respectively, last season, are expected to continue to pace the Firebirds. They will be joined by Taylor Vistad, who finished 115th at the state meet, and 122nd-place finisher Kelli Olson, a junior this season.

Another key element to any success of the Firebirds this season will be Nicole Johansen, who was the sixth runner for Devils Lake at the state meet last season. She will entering her final year and her contributions, according to Kukert cannot be overstated.

“There is no doubt (Johansen) is the heart and soul of this team” Kukert said. “She does a great job of motivating the other girls and I would not replace her for anyone else. She brings so much more to a team than just her placing.”