For portions of the cross country season, Lancaster’s boys cross country team functioned as a three-headed monster with seniors Stephen Sparks, Adam Wise and Nick Weaver all running in the front pack of races. With injuries impacting Wise early and Weaver late, only one consistently was at the top.
Sparks is the Eagle-Gazette boys cross country athlete of the year.
“I think what it really comes down to is Stephen was strong at the beginning, strong in the middle and strong at the end,” coach Jeff Koksal said. “He remained strong right through the end of the season and ran a great race at the state meet.”
Sparks began the season with a 16:29 and a 10th-place finish in Centerville and didn’t look back in earning a state berth. He placed 30th in 16:10 at National Trail Raceway in Hebron. During the course of the season, he broke the coveted 16-minute mark, lowering his personal best time to a 15:56.
While Sparks had some success as a junior — he finished 20th at the regional meet — he did so while also playing varsity soccer for the Gales. A strong junior track season that saw him place fourth in the state in the 800 prompted Sparks not to play soccer this fall.
“In early June, I sat down with my family and discussed it,” he said. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, soccer still being my favorite sport even over running. But I definitely think I made the right decision.”
Forgoing soccer allowed Sparks, who always had been gifted with excellent foot speed, to focus on endurance. He went through a more regimented weight-training program that included upper-body lifting to help Sparks power through tough distance workouts.
“(I was) just trying to get him to the point that the rest of his body is just as remarkable as his leg speed,” Koksal said.
It worked. Sparks performed better in distance workouts and felt stronger during races than he had, he said. His teammates, who also served as his workout competition, noticed the change.
“The whole team was definitely happy that Stephen wouldn’t be playing soccer and would be focusing on running,” Wise said. “I think it just takes a long time to build as a distance runner. All the extra time he spent running, especially over the summer, it really helped him progress as a distance runner.”
Sparks credited Koksal as well as the competition he was able to foster with Weaver and Wise, for his improvement.
“My teammates, they pushed me,” Sparks said. “I never want to lose to them. We have a competition. That pushed me to, even when (I was) tired, to run as fast as I could.”
Fittingly, Wise continued to push Sparks until the end, running within seconds of him for the duration of the state meet. While Sparks emerged as the top Gale in that race, he wouldn’t have found the season-long consistency he summoned without his teammates.