Distance runners hope to carry Thunder girls to state gold
Distance dominant and right on track.
That’s the position the St. James Academy girls track team finds itself as it enters Class 5A regional action.
The past three seasons, co-head coach Greg Bomhoff’s girls ended matters as runners-up at the 5A Kansas state track and field championships.
Second at state. Three. Consecutive. Seasons.
“If I said I didn’t dwell on it a little bit, I’d be lying,” Bomhoff said.
Paced by dominant juniors Katie Moore, Hannah Robinson and Sarah Murrow along with talented freshman Ella Jett, St. James has an embarrassment of riches in the middle distance and distance events as well as the longer relays. But it is a little bit thin overall in team depth.
With that in mind, the veteran coach tinkered with his strategy coming into the season.
“In previous years we just had more numbers in general, so we could afford to really just have each of our ladies just go to state in what was largely their showcase events,” he said.
That wasn’t likely to work this season, not if they wanted to make a full push for their first state title since 2015 and second overall.
“I talked to them during the winter and let them know our plan was really to showcase them through the year and not overload them during any meets and give them ample chance to build up a resume for prospective college coaches,” he said, “but that once we got to the post-season then we’re going to take a break from that go into team mode and try to put all of our girls on the top of the podium in May and they were very fired up about that.”
The 11th-graders plates are loaded heading into Friday’s regional.
Moore, the defending state 400 champion, is entered in the 400, 800, 1,600 and 4x400 relay, while Robinson is in the 400, 800, 4x400 and 4x800.
Murrow has just three events, they just happen to be three longest, the 800, 1,600 and 3,200. The youngster Jett will run the 400 and 4x400.
“This is very different,” Moore said of her regional workload, laughing. “I’ve never gone 400, 800 then mile, ever. I have only run the mile once, ever. Last year I did the 4x8, the 400, 800 and 4x4 and THAT was a little bit challenging. But it’s different to have the 1,600 in place of the 4x8.”
Figuring out whom to put where and how many should run what was a grinding process. Bomhoff, as he always does, sought the advice of his predecessor, Rich Weitz, who is now the athletic director at St. Michael the Archangel in Lee’s Summit, Mo., and the person responsible laying down the groundwork for St. James’ track success.
“He is a huge, huge stats guy and he will go through and do what I call ‘run the numbers’ and he will look at every possible combination of numbers that we could put together for postseason to see what combination gives us the best chance,” Bomhoff said. “So after a number of conversations with him over the past couple of weeks this is the result we came up with and mutually agreed that this would give us the best chance to have success.”
St. James is again expecting big points from its distance relays and why not? At state a season ago, its foursomes dominated both the 1,600- and 3,200 relays, breaking meet records in both and churned out the fastest 3,200 relay time in Kansas history.
Robinson and Moore both ran on the 3,200 group that finished in 9 minutes, 19.6 seconds.
Moore anchored the race with a 2:15 split, just under her season-best of 2:16.09 this year in the open 800. She also took the final handoff for the 1,600 team, which finished at 3:56.56 for the meet mark.
“Relays are one of the things we take pride in,” Bomhoff said. “We always make sure that we have that, we kind of like to build that up on our team, we always try to put together a solid 4x4 to end the meet on a high note.”
With all the experience the girls in the longer races possess, he said it’s the least amount of hands-on coaching he’s had to do because they’re extremely focused and wise beyond their years.
“The conversations I do have with them are more geared toward helping them as athletes to bridge the gap between being a high school athlete and being a college athlete, which they’re all very much focused on being,” he explained. “It has been a point of emphasis this season to move past racing like a high school student and how to approach races like a college athlete.”
They’ve also had to learn how to race with and against each other. Heading into the regional meet, Moore, Robinson and Murrow are ranked a respective 1-2-3 in the 800. In the 1,600, Murrow, Moore and Robinson sit at 1-4-5, while Robinson, Moore and Jett are 2-3-9 in the 400.
“It’s a surreal kind of feeling that some of your biggest competitors are your teammates,” Moore said, adding “but it is also a privilege that you get to train with them every day. We all hope for the best for each other.
“We all have our different points of strength during a race. If somebody is having a rough time, we’ll try to encourage them to come along so that we can work together. We don’t plan it that way, it just kind of happens.”
If St. James advances all its athletes, as it expects to, Bomhoff really likes his team’s chances of ending its streak of second-place finishes. He sees Blue Valley Southwest, up-and-coming Bishop Carroll and, of course, the always dangerous Newton as the main threats.
“There is a lot of strong teams in 5A and it seems the state meet brings a lot of people out of the woodwork, a lot of people will come out with crazy PRs,” said Moore, also tabbing Southwest as the top threat. “It’s incredible, really, what can happen.”
Huey Counts is a veteran sportswriter, distance runner and youth track coach from Salina.