HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL players are not the only athetes toiling in the summer heat this week.
On Monday, the Ben Lippen boys and girls cross country teams got their first taste of the 2008 season. Coach George Johnson’s runners hit the trails on the campus of Columbia International University at 7:30 a.m. each morning this summer, but will move their runs to afternoon now that preseason practice has officially begun.
“Our first meet is Aug. 18 at 5 p.m. We can’t get ready for that by running in the morning,” said Johnson, who has been coaching for five decades.
“We’ve got to get accustomed to this heat.”
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When he says “we”, Johnson means the more than two dozen runners who have come out for the cross country squads this year. It is his privilege to find a relatively comfortable spot in the shade from which to coax his runners on during warm-ups.
If only he could coax more students to come out in the first place.
“I didn’t have much of a turnout, but the ones I have came out pretty regular,” Johnson said.
The numbers on the girls side have been bolstered by a crop of new, young harriers. The boys’ squad boasts familiar faces.
Hunter Frady and Zach Benefeld, the No. 1 and 2 runners from last season, return and along with transfer student Thomas Fisher, look to lead the team.
“I like to call them the Big Three...but it takes five! Those three will carry us, we just got to find four and five,” Johnson said.
So as soon as school begins, Johnson and his assistant coaches will make the pitch to gym classes looking for new runners.
“That’s how I got Monique Hennagan out, telling her she could stay in shape for basketball,” Johnson said of the two-time Olympic Gold medalist who got her start in running at Ben Lippen.
So, it should not be a hard sell.
“When you win 11 state championships they’d be standing in line to be a part of that,” he quipped.
From 1995 to 2006, Johnson’s boys cross country teams dominated SCISA, stringing together 11 Class 3A championships. Last year, the Falcons, already suffering from low numbers, fell behind after Frady was injured late in the season. Ben Lippen finished sixth.
That could change this year, and Johnson hopes that more boys will want to make it so.
Still, he recognizes what he is up against.
“I guess I understand,” he said. “Cross country is not as macho as football, and soccer is pretty important so they are getting to where they all play soccer yearround.”
But when the boys at Ben Lippen decide to take up distance running, Johnson will be waiting, standing in the shade, ready with words of encouragement to help them withstand the heat.