By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Portage County will be represented at the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s cross country state championships by two teams and one individual.
Regional qualifiers for the 2023 race were the Field boys in Division II, the Mogadore girls in Division III and Southeast sophomore Julia Wheeler for the Division II competition.
What: OHSAA cross country state championships.
When: Saturday, Nov. 4
Where: Fortress Obetz and Memorial Park (4175 Alum Creek Drive, Obetz, Ohio, 43207).
Children 5 and under: Free
Tickets are only available online by visiting www.ohsaa.org.
10 a.m.: Division III girls
10:45 a.m.: Division III boys
11: 15 a.m.: Division III awards
12 p.m.: Division II girls
12:45 p.m.: Division II boys
1:15 p.m.: Division II awards
2 p.m.: Division I girls
2:45 p.m.: Division I boys
3:15 p.m.: Division I awards
The Falcons’ running history is one of the most prestigious in the area.
Veteran head coach Ed Conroy, whose connection to the program dates back to when he was a standout runner in the early 1980’s, then continued when he took over the program for local legend Bill Huntington.
Conroy has referenced the team as special on a couple of different occasions this season, with team titles at the Marlington Invitational and Malone Invitational ahead of placing fourth overall at the Boardman Division II Regional.
Conroy offered his thoughts on the season, his team and Saturday’s state meet in a Q&A with Portage Sports this week:
Q: Describe your excitement for the boys to qualify for Saturday’s state championship meet?
Conroy: I think I was more excited than they were. Considering the fact that this year’s Northeastern Ohio Division 2 Regional was so competitive compared to other years that I have had teams qualify in the past.
I don’t think they realize just how strong of a race they ran. Most seasons, if you have your team pack racing between 16:45 and 17:45, you have a fighting chance to qualify for the state meet. This group of boys had an amazing pack, with junior Parker Shutty running 16:30, and our last man, sophomore Evan Pruszynski, at 17:20.
That is the key to a good team in these final races of the season. In regionals and the state meet, it is essential that you do not have a big gap between your No. 1 and your No. 5 runners to score well in these races. That is the strength of these boys. I felt that they had a strong chance to qualify, but they were ranked seventh overall coming into the race.
I felt the entire team — and myself — believed we could finish as high as fifth place. You can’t imagine how excited all of our team was when we beat three great programs that were ranked ahead of us in the state standings, and had defeated us earlier in the season.
When we saw we were fourth overall, and private schools like Hawken were behind us, that was extra special. These boys were all born and raised in Brimfield and Suffield, not recruited from all over the area. The key is to be thankful for the opportunity to compete this weekend and to continue to improve going into the biggest race of their lives.
Q: From preseason until now, explain how your team prepared to be ready to qualify?
Conroy: Cross country, like many sports, requires hard work in the off-season and in the summer months. Our training starts in mid-June and continues through November. The boys train six days a week and average running 40 to 50 miles a week during the season. They do a great deal of core, active stretching, hips, leg swings on a daily basis.
They use rollers at the end of all practices, as well. The strong family support is also a large part of the success. Our parents are amazing, hosting pasta parties as much as twice a week. This helps with the building of friendships. Both the boys and girls teams are very close and that makes for part of the reason the program is successful.
They would do anything for each other. I know this is both an individual and team sport, but I am confident these boys run for each other before they ever think of themselves. I also have two amazing captains with Carter Little and Sean Silk. Both boys ran on the 2021 state team that finished ninth overall.
Sean has been the key to the team’s growth throughout this season. He is the one that set the pace at the beginning of the season for all trail runs, workouts and races. He taught the boys how to race and held high expectations for his teammates on a daily basis. Sean has had an incredible career already, racing in two state tournaments by also being part of a 4×800 relay in 2022.
Carter is strong in giving advice on how to race each course that we run throughout the season. He has great enthusiasm and encouragement for his teammates. I personally feel that the biggest reason for where the boys have progressed to this point of success is because they were patient with each other and believed in the training program. I run the teams hard though the regular season, often running two strong workouts during the week. That means the teams often ran on tired legs during early invitationals. They accept the tired legs early on because they realize that when they start to taper at the end of the season, they will hopefully peak at the right times like league, district, regional and state meets. This was an inexperienced group of boys who trusted each other and learned how to race stronger as a unit each week.
Q: What makes your top-five runners special?
Conroy: Parker Shutty has been in the program for three years and has just recently come into his understanding of how to race to his potential. I needed him to step up and fill some big shoes when Sean Silk was injured in our mid-season. At the Boardman Invitational, he ran well, finishing in 30th place overall, however, I remember telling him if he would just push his body a little harder he could qualify to the state meet as an individual. It seemed to be around that time that he realized he had a little more in his body, and he started running much faster times. He did exactly what I predicted and he finished 16th overall at the regional, qualifying for the state meet as an individual by finishing in the top 24.
Sean Silk is the captain and the heart behind the team. He has earned the respect of me and his teammates, finishing second for our team last Saturday. He has run remarkably well throughout his career, and I am confident he is ready to compete this weekend.
Lucas Pollard was the biggest surprise of the season. He had been out from covid as a freshman, and injured his sophomore season. He is a great hurdler in track and is on the 4×400 team. I had no idea he could run as well as he has in the 5K. He has been a huge asset to our team and is a major key to our success.
Billy Silk is the twin brother to Sean. I was very lucky when he decided to join our team after playing soccer as a freshman. As a freshman, he would come to our meets and eventually I made him sign a verbal contract to run as a sophomore. That is one of my luckiest recruits I have made in all my years of coaching. He is one of the hardest working athletes I have ever coached, and I am glad he and his brother are sharing this memory together.
Finishing out the top five is one of the most talented sophomores I have had in the program, Evan Pruszynski. I ran track with his dad years ago, which makes having Evan even more special. Evan has closed the gap between he and our fourth runner by 30 seconds over the last three weeks. He is a key to the success this week in Columbus. If he continues to run with or in front of his teammates. There are so many places if even one runner struggles this weekend — they will all need to be perfect from start to finish, but we have all set a goal as a team to make the podium, finishing in the top-eight teams or better.
I believe strongly in this team, and I know they will give everything they have to represent their families, our school and our program. I have told them there will be years of past cross-country runners rooting for them. We have so many great runners and teams that have come through this program since the early 70’s. Many of the alumni will be watching and cheering them through every step.