WAXAHACHIE — A little less than 12 months ago incoming senior Brandon Gilliland was a step away from becoming a state competitor. Sophomore Brandon Moore had the best result at the 5A Regional II Meet for a freshman in Waxahachie High School history — 17 years.
When the new Indian boys' cross country season starts on Aug. 17 at Birdville High School's Invitational, though, those four footsteps may grow into a stampede.
"We have a lot of incoming runners that work hard and have a lot of potential to be great contributors in the program this year for varsity," said Edward De La Cruz, the head boys' cross country coach. "My top two runners, Brandon Gilliland and Brandon Moore, have been running year round, my No. 3 Kirby Chandler has been working hard this summer and my No. 4 and No. 5 runners, Rafael Aguilar and Sam Molina, have been logging year-round miles, too. We've five or six core runners but we're looking for six and seven to push three, four and five."
During the season, the boys' team finished in ninth place behind Coppell, Mansfield Lake Ridge and Red Oak High Schools with 214 total points during the second annual Waxahachie Woodhouse Invitational at the Lakeview Christian Campgrounds. Two weeks later on Oct. 10, they catapulted to fourth place during Burleson High School's Spartan Invite.
They outpaced 5A Cleburne and Crowley High Schools and were slightly edged by 6A Mansfield and 5A Burleson High Schools. De La Cruz said the issue last season — which may be null and void this one — was missing runners six through nine and 10 through 20.
In his calculations, No. 19 or No. 20 is no less important than No. 1. In reality, every runner outside the top five or six is essential to the overall success of a cross country team.
"I would love to have 10 [core runners]," De La Cruz stated. "When you have that many good runners, each pushes the other to the next level. When four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10 are pushing each other, it tends to raise the bar and create better overall success. It returns better results in district and at state. We had three really good runners last year but somethings happened. One of our runners had an accident and we had some injuries, too."
Injuries and setbacks aside, the distance that separated Waxahachie from a district and regional championship and a state meet berth could be measured in inches rather than miles. Especially sans school record holder Derek Espinoza for the first year in the last five.
His personal-best times of 4:28.98 in the 1,600-meter run, 9:35.38 in the 3,200-meter run and 16:02.7 in 5,000-meter cross country runs are all Waxahachie High School school records. Espinoza earned six top-three finishes as a senior, qualified for the Texas Class 5A state meet and finished 27th on a muddy course with a 17:22.05 and won the 14-5A district championship in 2016. he also finished the 8,000-meter run in 27:25.4.
Espinoza posted a career-best time in his first year as an Oklahoma Christian University Eagle in April Friends Invitational at Adair-Austin Stadium. He finished sixth with a 15:41.41 in the 5,000-meter run — less than seven seconds behind third-place finisher and teammate Emory Lobey.
Taking on the challenge of becoming a 265 day-a-year runner and adopting a strict diet helped him bridge the gap between good and great. Exercise and diet during the crucial months of June, July and August is a factor De La Cruz said he believes can be applied to nearly every student-athlete that comes to his doorstep wanting to run.
"Those are the crucial months that can make or break a runner. it's when they start turning it on so they stride into the season instead of turn the key to start the engine," he continued. "Part of it is being a year-round runner. Another is what you put into your body. A good diet for a runner isn't just depriving yourself of what you want all the time. It's knowing how much you're running, how many calories you need on a daily basis and figuring out where you can incorporate things that are not as healthy. It's about having a better lifestyle. There are some runners that can get away with cheating on their diet and still be good, but I'd like to see what those same runners could do if they had discipline and ate, drank and slept right. "
Though the former Indian's success helped spark interest in the sport of logged miles and worn soles, De La Cruz said it's hindered slightly by the enigma of Waxahachie's multi-sport success, which includes the high school's last district cross country championship and state appearance in 1999.
Before the beginning of the millennium, Robert Woodhouse was coaching, De La Cruz was a key piece on an uber-talented distance team and Waxahachie was among the cream of the crop in the 4A classification. Waxahachie's growth, though, is helping, De La Cruz said.
"We come from a town that's good at everything, so that affects how we can recruit and who ultimately wants to run, but the potential is there this year. If we stay healthy, it's up to my No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 runners and so on how far we go," De La Cruz said. "I mean, four of our top five runners have been running year round. The potential is there to go to state. We have a great chance, but it takes all of them working together, pushing hard and moving in the same direction toward the same goals. It takes them to do it for each other, the school and the town. If those things happen and it clicks, we have a great chance. Nothing in life is guaranteed, though. That's why No. 20 is just as important as No. 1. They have to keep pushing and proving themselves.
"You never know what happens. I've had runners that were No. 16 or No. 17 at the beginning of their careers that were No. 3 by their senior year. If you're doing things right and working hard for your team, school and town everything will take care of itself. Those memories of winning a district championship will never leave you and no one can take them away. I want those feelings for them, but they have to earn them."