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Gophers have plenty of running shoes to fill

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MOVING ON: The Clinton Central boys’ team will need to learn how to compete without graduated seniors - and three top runners - Jacob Hamilton, far left, Sam Ecenbarger, second from left, and Walter Martin, far right.
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JENKINS: Clinton Prairie junior Brody Cooke, right, will be one of several runners counted on to fill the void left by five seniors including Spencer Jenkins, left.
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LLOYD: Clinton Central junior Rebekah Lloyd is back after winning conference titles and qualifying for the semi-state in each of her first two years.
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LEADERS: Semi-State qualifiers in 2017, Rebekah Lloyd, right, and Melody Tolley, left, are back to lead the Gophers this season.

By AARON KENNEDY - akennedy@ftimes.com

The Clinton Prairie cross country teams will have to attempt to win their fifth consecutive Hoosier Heartland Conference titles without the help of last year’s talented senior class which graduated in May.

“The numbers have been kind of down this year. We will be fairly small,” Clinton Prairie head coach Byron Garrett said. “We are really starting over. We lost our top five boys and two of our top five girls, so we are very young. We are going to have to do a lot of rebuilding this year.

“Our summer workouts have really been pretty good with the kids who showed up,” Garrett added. “We have kids very involved in 4H and working more than in the past but we have done good tempo work that has really helped the kids understand what they have to do and what they need to do to be competitive this year. We had a couple official practices, so we will continue doing the things we have been doing and work more in the latter part of the season than the start because we just need the time to build.”

The Clinton Prairie boys’ team lost an accomplished group of runners who had led the team for several years in Jacob Hamilton, Sam Ecenbarger, Walter Martin, Ted Hamilton and Spencer Jenkins.

“We do have couple juniors back from last year’s team,” Garret said. “Brody Cooke and Logan Barret have some experience and knowledge of how to run cross country. I think their best times were in the 19s last year, so they will have long way to go to get to a good scoring position. But they both have the ability to help us be more competitive.

“I have a couple sophomores in Christian Matias and Tony Perez as well as Wesley Whitlock,” he added. “That makes the core of the team those juniors and sophomores. They all ran last year, but there is nobody there who have broken in to the 18s or anything, so we have our work cut out to really be competitive. They all have the ability to grow and get better. But, at the same time, it will take a little time before we start seeing what we would say are competitive edges on all of them.”

Garrett believes he may have a couple boys who could push for regional qualification.

“I have a couple I think can be close in Brody Cooke and Logan Barret,” he said. “Those two along with Matias, Perez and Whitlock have been really close in practice. It may be one of those teams where you don’t have a great but five runners who are competitive and very close together. I have one senior boy, Bryce Padget, who is really showing signs of being a runner. This is the first time he ran, but he will help the team. We have six strong boys. We will have to see how far we go this year.”

The Clinton Prairie girls’ team also lost key runners to graduation in Hailey Law and Mallory Robertson. Fortunately, they also return a pair of semi-state qualifiers.

“Of course, we have Rebekah Lloyd back who went to semi-state the last two years,” Garrett said. “Then we also have Melody Tolley who also went to semi-state last year. So, we have a little experience there. We have Tess Ecenbarger who is a sophomore this year who was injured last year but was coming along around the end of the year.

“We have two seniors in Nicole Burke and Abby Woodard,” he added. “Rebekah, Nicole, Tess and Melody are the four who have a lot of experience and ability to be very competitive this year. I am not sure where the fifth runner is going to come from at this point, but I am sure somebody will step up. Hailey Padget ran last year, and we have a couple new girls in Maria Burton and Elisa Etner.”

Barrett has high hopes for 2-time HHC champ Lloyd.

“I really want to see Rebekah get to state this year,” he said. “If she focuses and works hard, I really believe that she can muster that. She is just capable of doing it. I think a lot of it will be if she is willing to work hard enough and has the mindset to do it.

“I don’t see any reason why Melody can’t get back to semi-state this year,” Garrett added. “She is really big into 4H and the State Fair, but it won’t take her long to catch up because she has as good of work ethic as anybody I have had in the sport.”

The Clinton Prairie cross country teams begin their season Saturday when they travel to Terre Haute to compete in the Valley Kickoff Invitational on the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.

“I just want to see effort and consistency,” Garrett said. “The biggest point at this phase is putting it out there on the line and seeing what you can do at the first competition of the year. I think, if they give 100 percent and an honest race, there is anything else you can ask. That tells you they are in 100 percent, and they are all going to give you everything they got. That is what I look for.”