It's pretty safe to say that Newton cross country is in good hands for years to come.
The Cardinals' boys and girls teams each showed immense improvement this season from a year ago, and it was largely due to a well-stocked group of talented underclassmen.
Newton showed strength in its youth, and it's best exemplified by the two individuals that will represent it at Saturday's state cross country meet in Fort Dodge — Cooper McDermott and Grace Coen. After a two-year absence from having anyone run at state, the Cardinals have two this season. And both are freshmen.
Family affair for McDermott
If the name "McDermott" wasn't already synonymous with Newton cross country, it certainly is now and will be for the next three years.
Cooper McDermott was somewhat of a surprise state qualifier out of the Oct. 18 Class 4A district meet, seeing how he wasn't even the top runner on his team for most of this season. But really, making it to state shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. It's in his blood.
McDermott is the third in a line of three siblings that have made it to Fort Dodge for the Cardinals, and the other two did it with regularity in their time at Newton Senior High School. His sister Casey did it all four years from 2003-2007 — placing 23rd, 16th, 21st and 17th. She then went on to an illustrious collegiate cross country and track career at nearby Drake University in Des Moines. His brother, Colten, went to state in 2008 and 2009 as a junior and senior — placing 14th and 21st.
Despite all that family success, Cooper said he doesn't feel too much pressure to match his siblings' accomplishments.
"There's a little bit, but not that much," he said. "I just strive to do better and live up to their shoes a little bit."
Casey and Colten have made regular appearances at Newton's meets this season to cheer on their little brother — something Cooper certainly is appreciative of.
"It definitely helps," he said. "They push me. When I hear them, I at least have to go faster when going by them to impress them a little. It helps to have them there."
For most of this season, McDermott was Newton's second best runner. He led the team in its Sept. 6 meet at Johnston, but sophomore Christian Laube was the Cardinals' top finisher in their other eight regular season competitions. McDermott nearly beat out Laube at the finish line at the Little Hawkeye Conference meet on Oct. 8, finishing one second behind and in eighth place. At districts, McDermott finished eighth in 16 minutes and 44 seconds — four seconds behind his personal-best. Laube took 17th in 17:09 and has a favorable shot at getting to state next year.
What makes McDermott's success all the more impressive is that this is his first year in the sport. He did track in middle school.
"I just thought I'd have more success doing this than other sports," he said.
McDermott, who said his goal time Saturday is about 16:30, is one of 11 individual qualifiers in the Class 4A boys meet, and the only freshman of the bunch. There are 115 total runners in the field, 10 of which are freshmen.
The 4A boys meet begins at 11:30 a.m. at Fort Dodge's Lakeside Municipal Golf Course.
Business as usual for Coen
Whereas McDermott was an unknown entering this season, a lot of people involved in central Iowa cross country discussions had heard of Grace Coen.
She entered her freshman season after taking second at last year's Iowa state middle school cross country meet and was one of the nation's top-ranked middle school runners.
Despite her youth, Coen has more competitive running experience than most high school upperclassmen. She said her first race was when she was 8 or 9 years old.
"I did the Iowa Games one year just for the fun of it. I came home with a couple medals and I was pretty proud of myself," she said with a laugh about the experience.
Her freshman campaign has been a continuation of that success. She won the first three races of the year and seven of the eight regular season races she competed in. The only one she didn't was on Sept. 6 at Johnston, where she took second to Johnston freshman Bailey Eppart by only two seconds. Coen won the conference championship Oct. 8 and qualified for state by placing seventh at districts in 15:42. Her season-best time is 15:09 — set in Newton at the Sept. 18 Cardinal Invitational.
"I really didn't have any expectations," Coen said about this season. "I just wanted to do the best I could do."
All of Newton's meets this season besides the one at Johnston were primarily against 3A competition. But Coen showed at Johnston — and certainly at districts — that she's one of the top 4A runners in the state.
"She's pretty well controlled 3A kids all year," Cardinals girls coach Mike Castings said after the district meet. "When we have run against 4A kids, she has been very representative. I wish she had the opportunity to run against faster kids throughout the season. The meets we're in right now don't allow that. Hopefully we can adjust a couple things."
"I think it'd be nice to go to more 4A meets, but our schedule is our schedule," Coen added.
Coen is one of only five individuals that qualified for the 4A state girls meet, and the only freshman of that group. There are 22 total freshmen in the field of 110 runners. The race begins at 11 a.m. Saturday.