With mix of young and old, Liberty Hill XC prepares for state meet

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14876449_10209501146378137_8764287528040624679_o-webBy Mike Schoeffel

With just two days to go until the UIL state cross country meet, spirits are high for Kim Holt and her runners, both young and old.

The boys and girls teams have qualified for the biggest high school meet of the year, which is set to take place on Nov. 12 at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock. Both teams were led by strong upperclassmen who were at their best with the most on the line — which, in this instance, was the 4A Region III meet in Hunstville on Oct. 29 — as well as a slew of talented young runners.

Junior Alex Albarran placed first overall for the boys at regionals, while senior McKynzie King finished second overall for the girls.

“Both teams have fought hard to get where they are this year,” said Holt. “The girls had their doubts earlier this year, about making it to state, but they did it. The boys realized when they placed second at the McNeil meet. Since then, they have gotten better and better.”

The boys won the regional meet by a solid 18 points over second place China Spring. They will appear in the state meet for the first time since 2011.

Albarran is the most heralded upperclassman leader, but he’s not the only Panther with valuable experience. Clayton Nance, a senior who placed 11th at regionals, is the oldest runner in the Panthers’ top five.

Albarran and Nance have been the elder statesmen for a pack of runners that tends toward the green. The Panthers’ remaining top three runners are underclassmen — sophomore Nick Roth, who placed eighth at regionals; freshman Gabriel Diaz, who placed 18th; and sophomore Cade Cole.

The girls, who are making their sixth straight appearance at the state level, have an identical upperclassmen/underclassmen ratio as the boys.

King has been the pacesetter all season, but fellow senior Emma Hofmann has played her role as a seasoned veteran, too, placing 18th overall at regionals to help the Panthers to a second place finish as a team. Just like the boys, the remaining three runners are exceedingly young — Ellana Luna, who placed 10th at regionals, is a sophomore, and Madison Sears and Hannah Johnson are freshmen.

“My expectations heading towards the state meet are high,” said King. “We’re always expected to do well, and when we are given the opportunity, we really prove that we can do more as a team than people think we can.”

As has been widely documented, King and Hofmann will lead the Panthers on a redemption tour, of sorts, in Round Rock this Saturday. Last year’s meet was a sloppy, rain-soaked mess, and the lady Panthers’ dropped all the way to 13th overall, a far cry from a fourth place finish in 2014 and a third place finish in 2013. Conditions are expected to be much more manageable this year, and King isn’t wasting her energy worrying about the weather.

“Last year was muddy and rainy and nasty, but this year the weather is supposed to be better,” she said. “There might still be mud, but what can you do? I still think we will do really well individually and as a team.”

Holt, too, is optimistic, considering her runners have been turning in some of their best practices over the past week.

“The runners have had great times in workouts the past two weeks,” she said. “We are hoping this shows at the meet this Saturday.”

While Holt likes to keep expectations tempered, there is a wide possibility that both teams could end up on the podium by day’s end, especially considering each squad will enter with a clean bill of health. As the coach put it, “both teams are ready to go.”

“I think it would be satisfying for both girls and boys teams to reach the podium,” she said. “They have been working really hard and I know they want to run their best on Saturday.”

So what will Holt say to her runners once Saturday rolls around, when thousands of runners and parents and coaches from all six UIL classifications descend upon Old Settlers Park for the biggest high school cross country meet of the year?

“I will probably tell them to make sure they are ready when they step on the line,” she said. “Make sure they have done their warm-up and make sure they don’t finish the race wishing they had given more…Our theme this year was ‘Finish on Empty,’ so I’m hoping they will finish the race knowing they have nothing left to give.”

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