After languishing near the bottom of the Mississippi Valley Conference and regional standings for a number of years, Highland High School boys cross country coach Doug Bradley would like nothing more than to see his team flip that script.
“We’ve been finishing in the bottom half of the MVC for too many years now and we have the talent to change that this season,” said Bradley, who is assisted by Bob Vance, a longtime coach of both track and field and cross country.
Bradley said getting good numbers to come out for cross country has been a problem the last few years.
“The numbers are great at the junior high level, but at this level it’s hard to put together good numbers with the popularity of football and soccer (also in the fall),” he said. “We have only two athletes from the class of ’20 and no athletes from the class of ’19. That makes this team really unique in that we will rely heavily on seniors and freshmen.”
A key trio for the Bulldogs this season should be senior Gabe Sherrill and sophomores Brylee Portell and Nick Hanratty.
Sherrill was new to distance running last season but he had a good introduction to it and finished as an All-MVC Second Team performer. The team will now look to Sherrill to take over as the team’s leader on the course this season.
“Gabe (Sherrill) was a huge surprise to everyone last season,” Bradley said. “He was new to running and really surprised everyone. It will be interesting to see how he responds this year now that his coaches and teammates know how capable he is. Pressure to do well will increase and the hope is that he will continue to improve into a better runner and team leader.”
Last year, Sherrill finished last season as a sectional qualifier and Bradley said he would love to see him put a capper on this season and his prep career by leading the team to the sectional.
Portell had a solid freshman cross country season followed by a strong track and field spring season. Bradley said Portell looks stronger than he was a year ago.
Portell will once again be doubling up on sports during the fall season as he will also compete in golf.
“He runs without fear and that is perhaps his biggest asset,” Bradley said of Portell. “He brings so much energy to the team during practices and races that the team is better just having him alongside. He’s coming off an outstanding track season and the sky’s the limit for him in this sport.”
Bradley said that no runner on the team will show more improvement than Hanratty, who was the team’s mileage leader this summer.
“He’s really learned a lot about running and even more about his capabilities as a runner over the past several months,” Bradley said of Hanratty. “I can’t remember an athlete making such a huge improvement in such a short time.”
Last year, Hanratty developed a strong camaraderie with Jacob Plocher, who was a three-time sectional qualifier in cross country and a two-time state qualifier in the 3,200 -meter run on the track.
Bradley said Hanratty is a lot like Plocher in style.
“He doesn’t have many speeds that he can shift into so he has to be consistent over the course and he has to have a great deal of endurance to compete with those that have strong kicks,” Bradley said of Hanratty. “Nick (Hanratty) has followed in Plocher’s footsteps by upping his mileage significantly. With mileage comes the risk of injury, but Hanratty has been injury-free most of the summer.”
Hanratty ran the Chicago Rock and Roll Half-Marathon in July and finished fourth overall in his age group.
“He’s really loving what he does and that enthusiasm will propel him to some terrific finishes this fall,” Bradley said.
Bradley said Sherrill, Portell, and Hanratty are followed by a bunch of question marks.
Seniors Caleb Machuca, Quentin Miller, Nick Schaible, Seth Schwappach and Gavin Ware all have varsity experience but all have been hampered by injuries or inconsistencies during their high school seasons.
“It’s critical that these guys turn the corner from participants to competitors,” the veteran coach said. “They have to engage early and stay engaged in the process of improvement.”
There are four freshmen who are also in the mix for varsity spots and leading the way is Easton Rosen. But Caden Fears, Josh Loeh, and CJ Voyles also have the coaching staff excited.
Bradley said the top four consists of Sherrill, Portell, Hanratty and Rosen while the other three spots are highly contested between Machuca, Miller, Schaible, Schwappach, Ware, Fears, Loeh, and Voyles.
“If the top three run up to their potential and the others follow closely behind, this team could have one of the best conference finishes in years,” Bradley said.