MONTICELLO — No small-school boys’ cross country team in America runs better than the Monticello Panthers.
Well, a reputable cross country website named XCnation.com rated the Panthers No. 1 in the nation for schools with enrollments under 500 on its preseason list.
“It’s pretty cool,” said junior Michael Melchert, the teams’ top runner. ”We’ve got to keep working hard to get to that point.”
Judging by the contents of a practice Friday, the Panthers continue to push.
They ran eight repetitions of 1,000 yards apiece, at race pace, with only 90 seconds of rest in between.
“It’s a challenging workout,” Monticello Coach Dan Sauser said. “The kids hate it. They’d rather run 12 miles than do that workout.”
But they do it. They want to make a mark that extends beyond a second straight Class 2A state championship.
Monticello has a proud tradition in boys’ cross country, advancing to state 15 straight years.
“One generation inspires the next,” said Ben Ahlrichs, another junior. “You had the Cook brothers, who inspired (Kevin) Balster, who inspired (Nate) Dotterweich, who inspired us.”
This team, though, has the potential to be the best of all.
The Panthers return five runners — Melchert, Ahlrichs, J.J. Frawley, Tiler Streets and Dallas Lumpa — that broke 17 minutes at the state meet last year. Four other boys’ teams in Iowa can make that claim, and they’re all in Class 4A.
“I fully expect this to be the best team I’ve ever had here,” Sauser said.
Melchert broke a course record at the Jones County Fairgrounds last week, in 17:03. In an intrasquad time trial.
Lumpa was second at the time trial.
Most of the Panthers ran six, if not seven, days per week through the offseason.
“A lot of days, I had to taper them down a bit,” Sauser said. “They all want to work harder and harder. It’s not a bad problem to have.”
The Panthers will learn where they stand against big-school competition Saturday, when they compete at the Cedar Rapids Prairie Invitational. They were fourth at Prairie last year and will run against top-level 4A schools like Linn-Mar, Cedar Rapids Washington and Iowa City West.
It will probably be the only time this season the Panthers will be underdogs.
“The national ranking, it definitely put us on the map,” Frawley said. “We know there will be a target on us all season.
“We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to go out and run our race.”