The Hoover Vikings' girls cross country team not letting injuries slow them down as the Division I Malone District meet looms.

NORTH CANTON  As the cross country season winds down and teams prepare for their league and district meets, no asset is more valuable than health.

Unfortunately for the Hoover girls cross country team, health has been an elusive target this season. As the year winds down, the Vikings are dealing with the loss of two key seniors and one of their top sophomore runners, all while trying to prepare for the Malone Division I district meet.

“We’ve kind of gotten bit by the injury bug this year, having three runners out, and we’re limping into the end of the season,” head coach David Neitzelt said. “The good news is that we’ve had some of the younger kids get to run on the varsity team and get to know what it takes to run fast time and compete.”

The Federal League meet, held Oct. 15 at Boettler Park in Green, was another big test for the Vikings. They placed fifth in the meet with 122 points, not far behind fourth-place Green. Leading the way were a pair of seniors Neitzelt pointed to as leaders for the team all season, as Allison Michel (ninth, 20:37) and Madison Kile (17th, 20:52) paced the Vikings with top-20 finishes.

The competitive environment of the league meet serves as a good postseason training ground for all seven league teams and Neitzelt said he and his coaching staff make a point of challenging their runners to target and try to compete with the teams that have been fixtures at the top of the standings in recent years.

“It solidifies the fact that the Federal League is one competitive league,” Neitzelt said. “GlenOak is at the top of the list, Jackson always has strong runners …. but as we’re preparing with the younger kids, we tell them, ‘Those runners used to be just like you guys as younger kids, and you can look at them and see where you could be in the future.’”

On the course at Boettler Park, Hoover coaches challenged their runners to watch for the yellow jerseys of GlenOak and the purple jerseys of Jackson and try to stay with those teams on the course. 

As for the district meet and the hope of getting runners to the regional level, the Malone district meet remains one of the strongest in the state and for Hoover, having a chance to run on a course not far from home and one with which they are very familiar provides a big benefit.

“It’s a huge advantage being basically in our back yard,” Neitzelt said. “Allison Michel always seems to excel on that course. She runs sprints in track (season), so the hills there, she does really well.”

Michel’s unique combination of speed as a sprinter for the track team - she reached the regional meet in the spring in the 400 meters - and endurance as a cross country runner give her a chance to make it to regionals this fall, along with Kile. The Vikings know they’ll face their Federal League rivals again at the district meet, but at the end of a challenging campaign, their focus is on running their best times and not worrying about elements they can’t control.

Throughout the season, as injuries and other challenges have hit, Neitzelt has used lessons he learned from his father - longtime Jackson track coach and athletic trainer Rick Neitzelt - to try to keep his team on course.

“We preach to the girls that constant communication is a big thing because they know their bodies best,” Neitzelt said. “Probably some of biggest things I’ve learned from my dad are to be open and honest with the girls and to let them know where you’re headed and why you’re headed that way. They have every right to know where we’re heading.”

In the end, the veteran coach noted, “times don’t lie” when it comes to determining how a runner performs. If Hoover can end its year running well and crossing the finish line with a good performance, the injury issues and other hurdles they’ve faced will simply be part of a larger story, one they hope will conclude with a positive final chapter. 

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB