Thursday, December 19, 2013

Edina Rises to the Challenge

"Nike Nationals(NXN) has changed everything, at least for the top level" said Edina coach Jamie Kirkpatrick.  It prolongs the potential length of the cross country season and, Kirpatrick says, has widened the gap between the top teams and the rest of the field.

The Hornet pack led by David Ellenberger(259) at NXN. Photo by Kraig Lungstrom
It requires more careful management of a team's efforts, their resources.  This year Edina's boys managed the end of season  better than anyone else.  They came up short by a mere 13 points at the MSHSL XC Championships, but had more left for the NXN Region Meet and the NXN Championships, winning the Region competition and placing tenth at the Nationals, the top Minnesota boy's team finish.

Going into the 2013 cross country season, the best guess of what would transpire was that three boys teams would vie for the titles--defending champion Stillwater, Wayzata, and Edina.  At the end of the season it all came down to the not uncommon scenario of whose third, fourth, and fifth team scorers performed the best on the day.  All three teams had strong front runners, but as cross country is a true team sport the end result is usually decided by one or all of the core group that packs in after them.

For Edina the key runner was their third man, David Ellenberger.  A freak injury from a fall during the 2012 XC season and a case of  anemia during the 2013 track season stopped Ellenberger from showing his true potential in his junior year.  Going into his senior season, Ellenberger got rid of both those impediments. "(Ellenberger) ran more this summer than any of our runners," said Kirkpatrick.  As the season progressed that work began to pay off.

Like most teams with ambition of extending their season to December and NXN, the practice is not to run hard or too often at 5K, or with the full varsity contingent early in the season.  You want to gradually build to a double peak of sorts where the end of season Conference, Sectionals, and State meets finish the "regular season" with a peak, but with enough left to peak again for NXN.  While Stillwater struggled with an injury to Eli Krahn early in the season and getting everybody running their best at the same time during the championship season, Wayzata stamped themselves as the team to beat.

After Wayzata won the team title at the Griak Invitational in September, coach Bill Miles realized that Edina was the team building momentum for State.  Ellenberger, he noted, was coming into his own and bringing his teammates with him.

"(Ellenberger's) big breakthrough came in Sections," said Kirpatrick.  He was with a pack of runners who had outrun him in the past at the two mile mark when he realized: "I can run with these guys," said Kirkpatrick.  He not only ran with them, he ran past them and, just as important, his teammates came with him.

"Henry (Jessen) and Jon (Shirley) ran every workout with (Ellenberger)," said Kirkpatrick.  So, they had the same epiphany as Ellenberger when they saw their training partner ripping through the field.  The result was a steadily improving team.  At State, Edina almost turned the tables on Wayzata as the teams were tied through the first three finishers and only two points separated the top four.  By NXN Regions, the Hornets ran past Wayzata for the first time all season.

The Edina team in their tent at NXN.
"It's all about patience, managing your effort," said Kirkpatrick of the race tactics his runners employed throughout the season.  The team was given "pretty specific race plans" that followed what they had been running in practice so that once in the race they "didn't have to do anything they hadn't done."  They were in a comfort zone of sorts where the races mirrored their training and where it allowed Ellenberger and the others to go beyond what they had done before, to build on their success and carry it on to the next practice, the next meet.

The last six weeks of the season was not a time for substantial change, just improvement doing the things they had practiced and performed throughout the year, Kirkpatrick said.  Combined with the positive feedback of steady improvement, it took Edina to new heights.  "It only works if you already have success,' said Kirkpatrick.  "You don't change overnight."  It's a gradual process.  The drive to get better, to break down barriers, he says, comes from the kids.  "I'm not big on external motivation," he says.  "I don't think it works.  It doesn't create and environment that's fun."

Motivational speeches, "pep talks," are often at least perceived as from an external source, not an outgrowth of their own ambitions, abilities, and internal motivation.  It's why Kirkpatrick has escewed goal setting or talking in specific terms at the beginning of the season or as the season goes on about winning this meet or that title.  Athletes with the talent naturally gravitate toward the higher challenges, he says, they want to win State, go to NXN.  A coach doesn't need to place those achievements on a pedestal or overemphasize their importance.

The Edina "lockers" at NXN
"I'd hate to think that if they perform at their best, but come in second that they would see that as a failure," says Kirkpatrick. Failure isn't a term that is approopriate for any of the teams this year.  As is often said, one learns more from one's setbacks than from the victories.  As there is only one winner of each competition, that leaves a lot of "teachable moments"  for the next effort.  The challenge now is to take those lessons and adapt for the next challenge, the next season.

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