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by Becky Kimbrell-Norris
WAKE FOREST — With some depth returning to this year’s team, Heritage High School new cross country coach Thomas Hampton is optimistic for a successful, productive year.
“We are obviously still building our program, and each year will be another step towards building a well-recognized cross country program in the state,” said Hampton, who replaces Michael Roth this season as the head coach.
“We want to be competitive in the conference and send more runners to the regional and state championships than ever before,” he added.
Hampton competed in cross country in high school and at the University of South Florida. In addition, he coached a junior cross country team in Missouri.
The Huskies currently have 20 returning runners from last season, who have been participating in early practices.
Altogether there are 44 runners on the team, including 34 boys and 10 girls.
“Practices have been going great,” Hampton said. “We’ve had a tremendous turnout since we ramped up optional practices with around 40 runners per day.”
For the more experienced runner, the team has been focusing on speed, pace, establishment and running as a team.
Hampton said the newer runners have been working on conditioning to build their distance base and learn the concept of pace.
“This year’s team is made up of a lot of kids that just plain love the sport of running,” Hampton said. “They are out there because they want to compete and personally improve. That makes my job so much easier.”
Senior Grant Rodgers is the top returning runner for the Heritage boys and the only Husky that competed at the state meet last season.
“Grant has had an outstanding summer and is poised for a breakthrough senior year,” Hampton said. “He really is in a class of his own.”
Anthony Hampton, a junior, is also coming off a productive summer and is showing up as the team’s solid No. 2 guy, said Hampton.
Matt Dausch and Gabe Gonzalez, both seniors, return this year as well.
“They have both come back healthy and ready to go after late season injuries last season, and both are expected to be within our top five,” Hampton said.
Also expected to be consistent varsity contributors are sophomore Gus Wilberding and Tom Simpson, a junior.
“Gus was last year’s top freshman and is clearly expected to play a big role in the ‘Blue Pack’s’ future as we continue to build our program,” Hampton said.
The final boys’ varsity spot is up for grabs, and Hampton said there are seven to eight runners in the hunt for it.
On the girls team, newcomer Kira Michaels, a junior, has taken the team by surprise.
“Although Kira was not on last year’s team, she has shown up as the preseason top runner and is positioned to break a number of school records this year,” Hampton said.
Cameron Good, a junior, is the current record holder for the Heritage girls and is expected to be a solid contributor again.
Sophomores Caitlin Brennan, Kathleen Jusko and Ashley Jeckel, another new runner, round up the pre-season top five scoring positions for the girls.
“Similar to the boys, the sixth and seventh varsity spots at this point are wide open for any of the remaining girls,” Hampton said.
One of the expectations of Hampton this season is that his runners set personal goals and commit 100 percent to achieving them while also committing to compete as a team.
“One of the great things about cross country is that it is both an individual sport as well as a team sport at the same time,” Hampton said.
“I expect them to build relationships with their team members that will be long lasting. Most importantly, I want them to have fun.”