Editor’s Note: Images above provided by the UMHB Athletics Department (Pictured left: Katrina Barrera, Pictured Right: Cade Baker)
BELTON, Texas- As head coach Alex Aldaco looks ahead to the 2021 cross country season, he cannot help but notice the stark differences between past seasons and the season ahead.
For one, he and his squad will be competing in January and February, often the coldest months in central Texas. Add in the fact that his team will have only practiced for about 10 days since returning from winter break before it sprints into its first meet of the season on Saturday, January 23. The Cru already had its first meet on January 16, the Concordia Invitational, canceled due to Covid-19 concerns. The NCAA canceled all fall sport championships, including cross country, but the Crusaders still have the ASC Championships to look ahead to. As Aldaco puts it, the best you can do is “control what you can control”, and the rest will come.
Despite several challenges, this upcoming spring season is set to be UMHB’s strongest in program history. Since Aldaco restarted UMHB’s men’s and women’s cross country teams in 2018, he has worked to establish his program from all aspects, including recruiting, as he brings in a talented group of newcomers for the season. Because there was no competition in the fall, his team was given a chance to build that crucial team chemistry and make the transition from high school to college running. Just like in any other sport, there are key differences between the two levels, including the fact that the distances run are not often the same. Typically, high school boys compete in the 5k and girls race the 3k or 2 mile. Those are two completely different races, run in different ways, requiring more stamina and endurance. That is why it often takes freshmen, especially on the men’s side, a little while to develop.
“The 5k and 8k are two different races altogether,” said Aldaco. “In high school, you can run the first two miles hard, and you can get through the last mile ok. You can’t do that in college. So it takes guys a little more time to improve. Girls usually run a 5k in high school, some of them run 2 miles. But still, between 2 miles and a 6k, that’s not as big of a jump [as going from a 5k to an 8k].”
However, Aldaco is not relying on freshmen to guide his team this spring. For the men, senior Cade Baker, who was UMHB’s top finisher at the ASC Championships in 2019, and junior Logan Garner, who finished right behind him, will be at the front of the pack.
“There’s a huge transition for guys especially, going from running the 5k to the 8k,” said Aldaco when asked how experienced runners such as Garner and Baker will lead the team. “You have guys who have been here for a couple years and can tell the guys, ‘Ok, this is what it feels like. It’s a difference, but you will get better if you follow the program’. I can say it all day, but when other runners say it to other runners, it means more to them.”
The women, though younger, have two leaders in sophomores Holly Dasher and Katrina Barrera. In fact, Aldaco recently noted that he does not see them as sophomores, because they run and lead with the poise of seniors.
“The girls that led our group last year, which was Holly and Katrina [should lead the team],” said Aldaco. ” Even though they are sophomores this year, they’ve matured so much over the year and are so much more confident now that they found success in their first year. I really want those two girls to show the other news girls that we have here on campus the way to do it, and they’ve done a great job. I’ve been coaching a while and they don’t feel like sophomores. They feel like juniors and seniors to me. They’re very dependable.”
The slate is slightly reduced in comparison to past seasons, with a three meet schedule set to run for the abbreviated six-week season. The Cru open will begin the season with a road trip to Houston, competing at the St. Thomas Invitational. Next up is a trip north to Abilene to the McMurry Invitational on February 6. And what better way to cap it all off than to run on the course where the season was supposed to begin and race in Round Rock at the ASC Championships on February 20.
The ASC Championships is “the big one”, according to Aldaco. Since the program’s reinstatement, the men have finished ninth at the meet in each of the last two seasons. The women have seen more immediate success, placing sixth in 2018 and third in 2019.
Weather seems to be the biggest variable facing his squad as it looks ahead to the conference championship.
“Our conference meet, which is the big meet we’re shooting for, is going to be in Round Rock,” said Aldaco. “As you know, February in Round Rock is cold. That’s going to be the biggest thing. We practice in the mornings at 5:45, so it’ll probably be 20s and 30s then. Usually it doesn’t cool off until November, but it’s never this cold in November.”
Looking ahead into this season and the future seasons to come, Aldaco has goals for this program, and it starts with him improving year in, year out, as a coach.
“I’m always trying to get better as a coach in whatever I do,” said the head coach, who has also coached at Concordia (TX) and Texas Tech as an assistant. “Creating more innovative workouts, getting better at recruiting, doing a little bit better in everything. That’s really an onging process. I’ve been doing this for a while and I feel like I get better every year. That’s my No. 1 goal. If I can be better at my job, I know I can bring in good athletes who want to be here and they will get better too.
“I really don’t have goals like going to nationals, because I know that will happen eventually as long as I’m doing the best I can do. That’s all I kind of focus on, helping the runners here to do the best that they can do, and all the other stuff will take care of itself over time.”