HHS CROSS COUNTRY: Numbers and new talent raise hopes

An infusion of numbers and new talent has raised Coach Brian Kennell’s expectations for his Hillsboro High School cross country team this fall.

Kennell returns only two runners-Matt Unger and Heather Pankratz-from last year’s eight-member team.

This fall, his roster has grown to 14 athletes. Five newcomers are freshmen, but three are seniors who decided to pursue cross country for the first time in their final year.

Kennell is waiting for the team’s first meet Aug. 31 to determine who his top performers likely will be for the season. But if past running experience is any indicator, he can expect at least two seniors and two freshmen to be near the top.

Seniors Garrett Call and Adam Jilka are both seasoned middle-distance runners in track. Call finished fourth in the 800 meters at the regional meet last spring with a time of 2:04.3 and ran the 1,600 meters. He and Jilka were both members of the 4×800 relay that qualified for state.

“They’ll need to adapt to the extra distance of the cross-country course,” Kennell said. “Really, I think they’ll do that OK.”

Even though Call and Jilka are cross country rookies, they have already set the tone for the rest of the team.

“They’re great kids,” Kennell said. “They’ve come in and taken on a team leadership role, which I think comes from their past sports experience.”

At the other end of the age spectrum, brothers Daniel and Aaron Yoder should make an impact in their first year at HHS. Daniel set a Hillsboro Middle School record in the 1,600 meters last spring in 4:48.3, while Aaron set the record in the 3,200 meters at 11:12.96.

Kennell said a second set of brothers, Andy Unger, a senior, and Matt Unger, a junior, will contribute, too.

“(Matt) had a good season last year as a sophomore and really improved a lot throughout the season, and I think he has a lot of improvement in him yet,” Kennell said.

He thinks older brother Andy will develop during this, his first year of cross country.

“It will be interesting to see how the season goes because Andy looks like he could be a strong runner too,” Kennell said. “He just doesn’t have the experience behind him.”

Rounding out the competition for the boys are junior Kaleb Borg, sophomore Nick Unruh, and freshmen Michael Bookless, Wade Kimbrel and Tyler Stout.

“Michael Bookless looks good as a freshman,” Kennell said.

On the girls’ side, Pankratz is returning for her fourth season.

“She’s come in with a real good attitude,” Kennell said. “She’s been working hard and I think she would like to finish her senior season as strong as she can. She’s been real strong throughout, right from her freshman year.”

Joining her are juniors Kara Kaufman and Jocelyn Kliewer, who are newcomers to the sport.

“They don’t have the experience, so they’re at a beginning level,” Kennell said. “But both of them, as they get stronger and get their cardiovascular systems built up, could contribute as quality runners.”

With only three girls, the Trojans fall short of the required five members for team competition.

Because of the heat, the Trojans have had to practice in the morning.

“If we can go at 6:30 (a.m.) and it’s 72, there’s not much point at 3:30 (p.m.) when it’s 103,” Kennell said.

But training in cooler temperatures could have a down side, too, when the team competes Thursday at Lindsborg at 3:30 p.m.

“If the meet is hot, it will affect performance because we haven’t been going in the heat,” Kennell said.

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