A change in head coaches from Larry Weber to Mike Michael hasn’t thrown off the Northwest Christian High School cross country teams much. Weber liked a heavy dose of distance training, Michael stresses speed a bit more.
“Both of them really care about the team, though, so it’s been a pretty smooth transition,” said sophomore Noah Phillips, who finished third in Saturday’s King’s Cross Invite in Shoreline, clocking 16:11.7 over the three-mile course. Fellow sophomore Garrett McSheffrey was right behind in fourth at 16:30.7
Girls senior co-captain Ellie Summers, who was also third at Shoreline in 19:16.7, notices a difference in personality between Michael and Weber, who retired after coaching the Navigator boys to a fourth consecutive Class B state championship a year ago.
“Their personalities are totally different,” she said. “Coach Mike is a goofball sometimes. Coach Weber was way more serious.”
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The biggest challenge may be the one facing Michael himself. In his eighth year at Northwest Christian, he’s been the head track and field coach, so knows most of the cross country athletes well, yet he inherits two very different teams.
The boys lost individual state champ Luke Schilter to graduation, along with their number two runner Corban Phillips. The girls, runners-up to Liberty Bell at state in 2016, are led by familiar faces, but have little depth with not even a single freshman on the roster.
“I’ve been their track coach and assisted Larry, so there’s not much of a transition,” said Michael. “It’s exciting to come in at a time when new kids are moving into the leadership roles in the boys program, though, to know I’ll be with them as they develop.”
Garett McSheffrey was 18th at state last year and Noah Phillips 22nd as freshmen, but both are among the top 10 returning runners in Class B.
“Last year I wanted to get top 10 at state but wound up way outside of that,” said Phillips. “Going into this year I want to make up for that and show that I can be one of those guys.”
Schilter was a hyper competitive rock at the front of the pack for the Navigators throughout his career. His absence is both a negative and a positive for the crew of underclassmen trying to fill his shoes.
“It’s definitely weird training without them,” says McSheffrey. “It pushes you to improve when someone is ahead of you. I’ve always had Noah to help me train better, but those guys ahead of you definitely helps set a goal.”
On the other hand, there’s now a chance to be No. 1.
“Last year I came into the season knowing there were a lot of meets I’m wasn’t going to be able to win,” said Phillips. “This year I have more confidence. I put more pressure on myself. We’re just sophomores but we have to perform, especially at state if we want to win again.”
Another sophomore, Cameron Neilsen, has been running right behind McSheffrey and Phillips, edging junior teammate Hamilton Summers for 11th over the weekend in the King’s meet. After a summer of hard training he feels responsibility as well.
“Not having Luke and Corban makes me realize how much us three as a unit need to step up and take charge,” he said.
On the girls side, a natural progression has emerged with Summers and fellow co-captain Megan McSheffrey leading the way, pushed increasingly by Ava Shackell, a junior transfer from Black Hills. Sophomores Jacalyn Tague, Tosin Faleke and Nina Fraser finished 10-11-12 at Shoreline.
“Going into my senior year, there’s a lot more emphasis on making things count,” said McSheffrey. “Not just making it more serious in competition, but in making it a joyful time and never forgetting why I run. I feel God’s glory when I run.”
Summers, who like McSheffrey wants to continue to run next year in college but hasn’t chosen a school yet, agreed.
“Running can become drudgery, something you do because you have to,” she said. “We don’t want it to be like that in our program, we want to run because we love running. It’s also a way of reaching out into the community and witnessing to people.”
Shackell has trained with Summers and McSheffrey during off seasons and now finds herself focused on narrowing the gap between her times and theirs. At both the King’s meet and the earlier Fort Steilacoom Invitational, she finished close to McSheffrey.
“It’s a good motivation for me to want to be where Ellie and Megan are,” she said. “During practices I try to keep that in mind. I want to be able to compete at that level so I try to stay with them.”
Right behind the Navigators top three, sophomores Tague and Faleke are also working to help the team match or better last season’s second place finish at state.
“I’m really glad to see myself stepping up,” said Tague. “I’m trying to close the gap between me and Ava. I’m trying to stay up with them and not make the gap any bigger, that can cost us a lot at state.”
“You want to look up to the girls in higher grades so you can learn from their mistakes,” said Faleke. “How they grow can help you grow.”