The running culture at Eastern Mennonite School is growing even as some athletic programs were hit hard by COVID-19. Strong cross-country and track and field programs, as well as a new winter middle school running club, are part of the mix.
“A combination of great long-term coaching staff, an encouraging atmosphere on the teams, and the fact that running and training could continue, despite COVID, are creating the perfect running ‘storm,'” says Andrew Gascho, athletic director.
Katie Cimini has coached varsity cross country, track and field and indoor track since 2013. Chafin Vrolijk has coached middle school cross country, varsity cross country, and indoor track and field since 2017. The two bring experience from college-level track and field and field hockey at Eastern Mennonite School.
“They’re a great coaching duo,” says Gascho. “They create a team culture, but also encourage individuals to continually improve. That was especially hard during the pandemic, but they found ways to encourage students to train on their own. And then, when we could begin to gather again, to be safe and build team spirit.”
The cross country season wrapped its 2021 season Nov. 11 at the VISAA (Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association) state championship at Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville, Va.
Erin Loker ’22 was the Flames sole female runner. “Going in ranked 20th, she knew she would have to run a gutsy race to earn an all-state spot,” reports Vrolijk. “She did just that, running a 22 second personal record of 20:52.20 and holding for a 20th place finish against a very competitive field to earn all-state honors.”
Jakob Gerlach was the top finisher for the boys, running 19:22.40 in just his second meet back after suffering an ankle injury earlier in the season.
Also rounding out the team’s top five were Drew Holland, Ben Huyard, Jedrek Sneary, and Silas King. The boys finished 16th out of 29 teams, their best finish since the 2014 season.
Volunteering together is one of the ways the coaches build team spirit in what can be an individualized sport. Each Christmas, the group shops in early November for gifts to pack boxes for Operation Christmas Child. The past three years, the team has managed the 5K Race for Relief at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale.
They also hike the strenuous 11-mile Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park during pre-season training each year. And, a pre-conference competition tradition includes literally smashing their personal records after writing them on a pumpkin, and then… smashing them.
Future looks bright
The future looks bright for the EMS running program as more than 25 middle school students have expressed interest in a winter running club. “If that many kids are interested, we’re going to make it happen,” says Gascho. “It’s a great way for students to stay active and connect socially in the winter months.”
Older students will have the option of a winter track and field season. Training for spring track and field competition begins in March.