Bolstered numbers breeds confidence for Bobcat boys

Last season the Marshalltown boys cross country team had a pool of 14 athletes to choose from.

This year, head coach Chad Pietig has a much larger group of athletes competing on the course, as the Bobcats are 28 strong heading into the 2018 season.

Pietig said having those kinds of numbers really for the first time in his tenure as head coach is incredible.

“I am really, really happy with the addition of the new guys,” Pietig said during practice on Tuesday. “When you have 14, guys feel their positions are safe, there’s such a disparity between those top five or six and everybody else, but we have some competition this year. There’s about 10 guys that will be vying for varsity spots.”

There are still tiers of athletes on the team, but Pietig said when you get away from the top varsity returners from a year ago it really is a large group of guys have the ability to help MHS succeed.

“Our top four or five are pretty solid, but 5-through-10 I think are all battling to get on that varsity spot. That’s something we have not had and I’m really, really excited about that,” Pietig said. “It’s just going to make us better every single day when they know they have to keep working hard and put the time in and do the work to get better because if they don’t, the guy behind them is going to.”

These new faces out on the course come from many different sports across the Bobcat athletics landscape, and Pietig said it was his runners from last year that convinced their teammates in other sports to give cross country a shot.

“We have some wrestlers, some soccer players, some swimmers, some guys who want to use this for conditioning for their other sports,” Pietig said. “Zach Bitker has always been a two-sport athlete, he’s already got two varsity letters in cross country, and he brought some guys out and hey are adding to that competition. Javier Rodriguez and Noah Hermanson got some soccer players out that are adding to that competition, it’s a nice thing to have. Hopefully they see the benefits of it in their sport and help us along the way.”

Rodriguez enters his sophomore season as the top returner from a year ago and the only returning runner to consistently run in the low 18’s. Pietig said he should be due for another good year on the course, as should Elijah Thiessen.

“Eli Thiessen did a great job this summer,” Pietig said. “He logged more miles than anyone else over the summer, I think somewhere around 250 miles, so he is much improved and I am really excited to see him race on Thursday and see him get the benefit from that so he knows it was worth it.”

While those two battle for the top spot, both will have a tough time replacing last season’s top runner in Luke Pedersen, who is now running at Bethel University in St. Paul.

“We really miss Luke for his leadership, right now when you look at that top 10 there’s one junior in the top five and a senior in the top 10. The rest are sophomores and freshmen,” Pietig said.

It’s actually that large sophomore group, who ran with Pedersen as freshmen last year, that Pietig said has stepped up to fill the gap in leadership.

“We’ve talked with about how they don’t have a Luke this year, they don’t have that guy and they have to be that guy collectively,” he said. “They have to do the stretches on their own and do them correctly, they don’t have that guy to show you.”

Some other athletes Pietig said will show some growth this season will be Freddy Ross and Noah Hermanson. There are a few newcomers who have shown progress early on in practice as well in Conner Smith and Marcus Barker, and Pietig said Smith is really turning heads.

“I think he was third or fourth last year on the eighth-grade team, and he actually leads about half of the workouts right now,” Pietig said. “I am really excited to see if he is as competitive as he appears to be in practice, because I haven’t found a workout yet that he hasn’t excelled at as a freshman.”

Other than the number of athletes out on this year’s team, Pietig said he is encouraged by what type of athlete he has competing for the Bobcats.

“They are runners,” he said. “We’re not trying to piece together a cross country team, these guys are into the training and are working hard. Physically when you look at them they look like runners, they’re tall and skinny and have long strides, and we are not just piecing together a team like we’ve had to the last couple years so I’m pretty happy with that.”

Heading into the first meet of the season on Thursday in the Marshalltown Earlybird Invitational, Pietig said this will be a good early test for his squad and he will see who separates themselves from the pack.

“We haven’t had a time trial and at the Earlybird we allow teams to run however many they want on varsity, so I am going to let them sort themselves out on Thursday,” he said. “I’m going to run 10 or 11 guys on varsity, that way everybody has a fair shot. I didn’t want to take a day of training off for a time trial, plus time trials when you are racing against yourself you don’t have the same atmosphere.

“Of course those positions are never set, but at least we are going to let them see where they are at and see where they rank and move forward from there. I really just want to see progress, we’ve worked a lot on the course and we’ve worked on hills and how to run hills and how to attack the course and be aggressive on the course.”

The Marshalltown Earlybird Invitational will start with junior varsity races at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Marshalltown Community College course, and the varsity boys will get started at 6 p.m.