Hidden on the Pleasant Ridge High School grounds is a track of mowed grass about five-feet wide.
The track, cut short by head cross-country coach Chad Hendrix, makes a 1.06-mile loop around the school. Twice a day, four days a week this summer, the track serves as training grounds for the Rams’ cross-country team.
After graduating boys team leader Tony Weber, who finished second in the state last year, Hendrix and the Rams are eager to show that losing a top runner is nothing catastrophic for the program.
Circling the mowed track Thursday morning were numerous runners whose talent was perhaps not as apparent due to having one of the state's best runners on the team.
Senior Tyler Darrow ran alone as he finished his three-lap session, but when the season starts, by Darrow’s side will be juniors Gabe Younger and Noah Tattershall. Together, Darrow said, they are the answer to Weber’s absence.
“You can’t replace Tony,” Darrow said. “But, it’s not so much about replacing one runner. We’re going to take three great runners to try to build up to what Tony was.”
For the girls, seniors Kristina Silvers and Carly Simonis will lead the Rams’ charge.
Silvers was a fifth-place finisher at regionals last season in the two-mile and has been an all-region runner the last two seasons, while Hendrix said Simonis has been a consistent points scorer for the Rams since she was a freshman.
Simonis said the girls team is taking a different approach to the season, as they have a young and inexperienced team compared to past years.
“Everyone’s out here working hard and we’re all pushing each other,” Simonis said. “I think we’re starting this year on building our way up. We’re taking it not necessarily slow, but smarter not harder.”
With less experience than usual behind Silvers and Simonis, Hendrix said he will be looking toward his seniors to provide an example and to be the driving force for the girls team this season.
“They’ve done a tremendous job the last three years and are already great leaders for us this summer,” Hendrix said. “I expect them to kind of carry the load early and let the young kids and the new kids to the program develop and get better as the season goes on.”
The only time the teams are separated is race-time.
The two teams run together during each practice. Team captains are in charge of getting their teammates to practice and to the weight room, and so far the captains have done their job.
Hendrix said the steady stream of 20 runners attending every morning and night practice is the most he’s had since he started coaching the Rams, and the results are impressive.
“I see a lot of hard work, I see a lot of kids that are doing more than what they’ve done in the past, even the older kids,” Hendrix said. “I expect us by the end of the year to be very competitive. … Hopefully those young kids will grow and we’ll be as strong as we have been in the past couple years.”
While the summer is still young, the training regimen Hendrix puts his team through daily is long and rigorous.
But, Darrow said during his career at Pleasant Ridge, he’s learned to trust Hendrix’s vision because his coach knows how to get a team into top shape.
The Rams haven’t qualified as a team to the state championship in recent years, but Darrow said last year’s results at regionals gives him hope this is their year.
Last season, the Rams had three runners run the 5K in 18 minutes for the first time in more than 20 years.
“I’d say it’s the best team we’ve had since the 80s,” Darrow said. “People don’t expect anything from us, losing Tony they overlook everything that we have. … With everything going the way it is this year, if we stay healthy, I think we can compete.”