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Cross country: Trojans keep improving

WORTHINGTON — If you are a high school cross country competitor, you might never hear a passionate speech of the type once delivered by legendary football coaches Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi.

Perhaps that’s why there are no famous cross country coaches.

It’s all about “improving” in cross country. It’s all about becoming the best you can be.

That’s what Ken Henkels, coach of the fine 2013 Worthington Trojans cross country outfit, preaches to his runners. It’s the kind of speech that doesn’t inspire movies. But it appears to inspire the Trojans.

Worthington, fresh off a solid varsity boys and girls showing at its own Turkey Trot race on Sept. 12, heads into today’s Jackson County Central Invitational at Loon Lake Golf Course with the same mantra —keep improving.

Henkels doesn’t stress fast race times at early-season events, but uses the competitions as an extension of training.

“In high school, you usually run yourself into shape with meets. We’re just using the meets as kind of a workout, too,” said Henkels on Wednesday.

The “workouts” are already paying off. In Tracy on Sept. 10, junior Matt Jirele completed his 5,000-meter race in second position among the boys, and teammates Anthony Luft was seventh and Amanual Fissiha 17th. Trojan girls Alicia Darling placed ninth and Meredith Moore 11th.

In Marshall on Sept. 10, Jirele placed fourth, with Fissiha placing 13th and Luft 16th. Moore and Darling came in 12th and 14th, respectively.

At the Turkey Trot, the sophomore Fissiha —who participated in the state meet last year — bettered last year’s second-place finish by coming in first overall in a time of 17:12.6. Darling (16:26.8) and Moore (16:27.4) placed fifth and sixth in their 4,000-meter races.

Worthington has established itself once again as a team to be reckoned with in both boys and girls events. The boys were second at the Turkey Trot, which featured 13 squads, and the WHS girls were third.

On the girls’ side, the Trojans are now being led by Darling and Moore for a third consecutive year. They frequently run side-by-side in their events, and they’re used to placing high.

“Our dynamic duo,” Henkels calls them. “They’ve progressively gotten better and better. If one’s having a bad day, I think the other one drags them along, and vice-versa.”

Fissiha is beginning to come into his own. As the only Trojan to return after competing as an individual in state competition, he is a leader and a hard worker. Jirele, too, is getting stronger and faster, according to his coach.

“I kind of look at him as a bulldog. He just doesn’t quit,” says Henkels.

A third outstanding WHS boy cross country runner, the state champion wrestler Luft, needs to take a back seat to no one when it comes to training hard. Luft, Henkels says, has learned that cross country isn’t just a good avenue to use to become a better wrestler; it has energized Luft’s naturally competive nature in its own right.

Henkels is pointing to Oct. 15 as a key date in the Trojans’ cross country calendar. That’s the day of the Southwest Conference meet — this year to be run at Prairie View Golf Course in Worthington —and the Trojans are aiming to challenge for the top. Today at Loon Lake, Worthington will run against Luverne, a strong conference competitor, for the first time this year. Henkels sees Marshall as the favorite in the boys competition, and figures the Tigers to be solid in the girls event as well.

For Henkels, it’s going to be a consistent mantra from here on out. Improve, improve, improve.

It’s not Rockne, but it’s effective.

“I’m happy with how they’re running,” he said about his athletes on Wednesday just prior to practice. “You tell them every day, ‘We’re just trying to get better.’”

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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