Three years ago, Pope John Paul II High School was just getting ready for its inaugural cross country season. Things have certainly changed as the Eagles are now preparing to defend a state championship.
Now, it is near impossible for the program to hover under the radar – not after last year. Not after the girls team captured its first state championship and the boys squad finished second overall at the state meet for a second consecutive season.
“I think everyone is just excited to get back out there and see how much we’ve improved since last year,” said Kondrat.
Never was that truer than over an uncertain summer.
With the cancellation of the spring track and field season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and limitations placed on training, Head Coach Larry Weber did initially wonder how much of last season’s enthusiasm would carry over into the summer months.
“While we could not train or do things like past years due to the current environment, the kids were always on time and eager for practice,” Weber said. “They worked hard and encouraged each other during their main summer training season in late June and July. There was not one person who took the lead during this time. I have not seen anything quite like this summer. The kids were all just full of gratitude to be able to run again in a socially distanced manner. They were very respectful of all the new changes.”
According to senior Kobe Deutscher, whose resume already features two individual track state championship, it was not just the top runners pushing everyone during summer training, but every athlete on the near 40-member team provided inspiration.
“I remember seeing one of the sophomores out running. It motivated everyone. It makes it easier to get out there and train,” said Deutscher, who joins Kondrat as team captains.
That level of dedication should make an already extremely gifted team even better.
Leading the charge on the girls side is Kondrat. A year after finishing 11th as a freshman, she cracked the top 10 as a sophomore, placing 8th last year. Weber believes her upward trajectory will only continue.
“Clare is one of the hardest-working student-athletes I have ever coached,” Weber said. “She always wants to do more so I have to hold her back a bit at times. Clare is very self-motivated, has an amazing work ethic, and has improved each year. I believe she has the potential to have a breakout year this season.”
Last year, the Eagles lost to defending state champion Liberty Bell by 99 points at the Nike Invitational earlier in the season.
“The girls grew so much by the end of last year when they upset the three-time defending state champions at state,” Weber said. “They really started to believe in their God-given ability by the end of last season. For me, last season was a moment for the ages.”
At the state championships, Pope John Paul II had 7 girls place in the top 50 to knock off Liberty Bell, a program that was looking to win its fourth consecutive title.
“By season end, the girls had developed the faith that they could challenge for the state title,” Weber said. “They shocked a lot of people at state last year. I had to check the results a couple of times myself before it sunk in that they won. I was so proud of the effort that those girls made that day. I was even prouder of the character, sportsmanship, and humbleness that the team displayed when won the first-ever state championship.”
With the entire team back Pope John Paul II it’s easy to understand why the Eagles enter the new season as the clear team to beat.
In addition to Kondrat, the team also brings back state participates in seniors Maggie Larson, Holley Nichols and Emeline Russell and sophomores Moriah Steinbrecher, Bella Kondrat and Catelin King.
On the boys side, the Eagles will once again be led by Deutscher. The talented senior finished third last year at state and fifth as a sophomore.
The team, which finished second to Northwest Christian at state in 2019, also welcomes back a pair of top 20 state finishers in junior Trevor Dugo and senior Mattox Marsh and state participants in sophomore Like Christensen and senior Sean Foley.
“This is my strongest boys team ever going into my third year as coach at JPII,” Weber said. “They have been the best 1B team in the state for the last two years. The 1B/2B classifications are combined in cross-country, unlike other sports. I believe the boys can challenge for the combined 1B/2B state title this year if everyone remains healthy and there is somewhat of a normal state meet. You can never predict the exact outcomes of any event. There are three or four teams that will be in the mix to challenge for a state title. Whatever team runs their best the day of the state championships will win the team title. Several teams are in contention this year.”