Mile by mile, they sprint onward

At first glance, the Central Kitsap Cougars cross country teams may appear a step behind the rest. In fact, at Wednesday’s Narrows League cross country championships, CK coach John Emery said his teams finished about where they should have for the season. Normally that wouldn’t be good, as the boys team finished last in 12th place and the girls also took 12th, staying just above Mount Tahoma. Also, no CK individual qualified for districts, missing the top 40 cut.

But Emery also knows that in this sport, success can’t always be measured by the standings.

“We may not be going to districts, but we had a good season,” Emery said. “That’s a tremendous drop for the short time frame we’re running. You can pretty much see that improvement on the entire team.”

Emery said everyone on the team has showed a drastic time reduction. And while they may not be winning, they are having a good time.

Just ask senior co-captians Niki Lesniak and Luke Reichley, who finished 50th and 49th at the league meet at Fort Steilacoom Park. When standing around with the pair, is easy to understand what makes them team leaders. In fact, Emery said they’ve improved their ability to lead even more than their times.

“They were captains this year,” Emery said. “Both of them stepped up to the plate. They inspired their other teammates. At the end of a meet, they would get all of their teammates together for a cool down run and stretching. They would make sure no one was left out. Not only do we see a large improvement as far as times go, but they bring the team together. You couldn’t ask for better captains.”

And it’s not just how they rally the team at practice or meets. It’s the weekly team pasta feed. And the hotel parties on long trips. And the inside jokes. It is all of these things that have earned Lesniak and Reichley the trust of their teammates, and made the team, in their words, more like a family.

“I think it is the people,” Lesniak said. “It’s really like a family atmosphere.”

One thing aiding them as team leaders is their friendship together. In fact, Lesniak joined cross country at the urging of Reichley. Lesniak was looking for a way to get ready for soccer tryouts. Reichley mentioned running for the team as a solution.

“He told me to join one day to get in shape for soccer tryouts,” Lesniak said. “I got cut, but (cross country) welcomed me in and I stuck with it. I was really sad, but now, I’m so glad I stuck with it. I was one of the more unwilling, but I’m happy now.”

For Reichley, his start came from within his actual family. Both seniors have been on the team all four years.

“Running always ran in the family,” he said. “I had a couple friends who ran. I just really enjoyed it and stuck with it.”

Over those four years, their running times have improved drastically. Both set personal bests this season, with Lesniak breaking her new personal record three times.

Lesniak set a new best with a time of 21 minutes, 11 seconds. Reichley was able to slice his time down to 17:01.

“I’m shooting for in the 20s more, but I’m pretty content with the 21s,” Lesniak said. “It’s pretty cool cause I used to be pretty slow.”

Reichley was “overjoyed” to see his time.

“I never thought I’d break 18 for a while,” he said. “It’s awesome seeing times go down.”

Both attributed their success on the course and as leaders to the equally hard work coach Emery puts in.

“(He helps us) as far as certain kinds of knowledge and how to deal with runners,” Reichley said. “I know I felt good at first, but to see times drop, it has worked as he said it would.”

Lesniak agreed, saying he is one coach that’s not afraid to get everything out of his runners.

“He just really pushes us,” Lesniak said. “He’s not afraid to make us work hard. He expects more of us than we could ever expect of ourselves, but he’s very approachable. I think I’ve been progressing a lot. It’s been crazy.”

Emery said the pair makes his job easier, as they have been able to motivate their teammates through the ups and downs of the season.

“As runners, both have improved in all aspects of running, but I’m very impressed with their leadership qualities,” Emery said. “They’re great athletes and they’ve got great personalities.”

Lesniak said one of her leading abilities is her determination. She said no matter her time, she can feel good about her race, just by completing it.

“I just ran three miles, so I’m pretty content with what’s going on,” Lesniak said with a laugh. “If I knew I could do better, I’d be upset. But I try my hardest even if I am tired.”

CK fielded a very young team this season. As a result, Lesniak and Reichley were forced to step up and take control of the team. And since the team is so young, Reichley said he expects they will be strong next season.

“Our season this year had kind of a jump start,” Reichley said. “Our first times in the fall, the times were surprisingly good for the first-years. They’ve progressed a lot. A lot of people have gotten personal bests.”

Emery agreed, saying the combination of freshmen and first-year runners should show significant continued improvement.

“I think next year we’re going to have a very strong team,” Emery said. “We had a lot of freshman come out and compete this year. On the girls side, again we got some girls for their first year out. Their improvement has been really well. They’ve done a super job on it. This was a relatively new team, and they’ve done real well.”

Part of the reason for that is the way Lesniak and Reichley interact with their teammates.

“(They help with) team unity, more than anything else,” Emery said. “Inspiring others to push themselves to the limit.”

As another example of their dedication to the team and sport, Lesniak and Reichley organized a team fund-raiser run of 10 miles. The team will run from the high school to Cold Stone Creamery in Bremerton, on Nov. 5. Emery said he encourages his runners not to run marathons at this age, so this was an idea that the pair came up with and organized, from start to finish.

“That was something they came up with on their own,” Emery said. “They’ve got to make sure we have support on the way. Parents will be driving cars for those who are injured. A 10-mile run is a long way.”

Lesniak and Reichley convinced their teammates to join in. Each runner will be collecting pledges for each mile they complete. The money will be donated to the CK cross country team.

“Even though it is their senior year and they won’t see the benefits of it directly, they still wanted to do it,” Emery said.

And while the Narrows League season may be over for the team and pair, they still have one more race, not for the glory, but for the team. Because that’s just who they are.

“They’ve done an excellent job this season,” Emery said. “They’ve given their best and I’m sure they’ll continue to in the future.”

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