A conversation with San Juan Cross Country Coach Holly Walker

by Rhett Sifford
Sports Editor
San Juan Cross Country Head Coach Holly Walker, who is now in her tenth season, recently answered a number of questions I sent via email. Her passion for the sport and her athletes is obvious and she had quite a lot to say. Here is our conversation:
Rhett Sifford: Coach, what are your thoughts about the team in general so far?
Holly Walker: The boys varsity team is a wonderful mixture of strong and fast upperclassmen and some fabulous young runners. Look for the varsity roster to be challenged frequently this season as the boys team is as deep as it is fast. A number of JV runners are developing quickly and threatening to upset some veterans. This team is hungry for victory.
The girls varsity team is entirely comprised of freshmen and sophomores. One of the girls’ greatest weaknesses in 2022 was the small number of runners. We currently have a full varsity and JV roster and a couple of extras. It’s amazing and the girls are only beginning to discover how strong and dangerous they can be as a team.
RS: You’ve run in a couple meets already. What are you seeing from the team early on?
HW: This past weekend the UIAAA Invite was good preparation for what the state course will bring in terms of large crowds and a similar flat, grassy course. We also found a few things we need to work on to help us be more competitive as the season progresses. But the fact that almost all our veteran runners were within seconds of their all-time PRs and almost all our new runners had significant PRs was amazing for such an early-season race.
In our first race at Dolores we only took our top eight runners from each team and our seniors. We had some unexpected placings with the boys. Boggy Draw is a tough course. It’s longer, at 5K rather than three miles, and hilly with rough rocky terrain to navigate. But some runners really loved it and far exceeded our expectations. Ninety percent of the veteran team ran the course faster than they did last year thanks to an off-season of consistent and tough training.
RS: Have any athletes surprised you with their growth and performance since last year?
HW: The entire veteran crew came into the season determined and having spent their summer increasing their endurance and strength. Whether they trained on their own or with the team, you can see who has or hasn’t put in the work in the first weeks of practice and the first meets. I don’t have a single returning athlete who isn’t performing better than last year at this same time, which is incredible.
RS: Who are your standout leaders?
HW: We have two strong individuals as head captains, both seniors: Edward Lyman, currently our fastest boy and part of the heart and soul of the team; and Megan Black, who gives her all, is inclusive, and a natural leader and never gives up.
Seniors Tatum Begay, Toby Ward, and Ryan McCullough are also co-captains and each bring their own strengths to the team. Tatum has overcome significant injury and is quick to recognize and encourage his teammates. Toby has a quick wit, an ability to teach and elevate others, and makes practice and trips fun and entertaining.
Ryan is an incredibly intelligent and gifted runner, yet has zero ego and is always willing to do whatever is asked of him. He asks a lot of questions others are thinking but might not voice and keeps the coaches on their toes.
Brinley Jones, a sophomore and girls co-captain and soccer player, has shown incredible drive, stamina, and athleticism, yet is thoughtful, coachable, and the first to offer a helping hand to a teammate.
We are seeing these and several other athletes develop into significant team leaders. Junior boys Logan Keith and Austin Pincock both have incredible work ethic and are rising team leaders.
RS: Talk about the strong young athletes coming up.
HW: We have many strong young athletes and some who don’t yet know how strong they can be. For the girls, Sincere Nez has been the fastest girl in our first two races this season. As a freshman, that’s significant. She suffered a devastating fracture last spring that cut into her training time over the summer but you wouldn’t guess it from how she’s run at the races.
A latecomer, Braylyn Eddie, who has yet to race, is another girl to watch. We have sophomore Brinley Jones, a consistently strong racer, followed by more incredibly strong freshmen Ada Lyman, Leah Johnson, Brittany Jensen, sophomore Rose Kartchner, freshman Sierra Black, and new-to-us sophomore Evelyn McCullough.
We also welcome freshmen Harmony Oshley and Marley Decker as well as sophomore Daryna Krukovska who are quickly developing into strong parts of this team. Together with our veterans Megan Black, Taryn Nielson, Jessie Black, and new-to-us senior Kinsey Bake we have had strong showings at our first two races.
For the boys, new freshmen Platte Lyman, Jack Kartchner, Hunter Keith, Oren Bradford, James Gosney, Devon Brown, Luke Jeppeson, Nick Jones, and Kawaykla Nakai have all made huge leaps since joining the team and we look forward to seeing them develop as runners. We also welcomed Dawson Hardin this year and are excited to see him develop.
Sophomores Noah Begay and Rosendo Martine are pillars of our varsity team and their hard work during track and the offseason has paid off in large gains this season. Another sophomore, Wyatt Keith is also showing that he has lots of potential.
Ethan Francom put in some serious mileage this summer and it’s showing in his dropping race times. Noah’s twin brother Kyle struggled through injury in the offseason but is making a strong comeback and advancing quickly through the ranks this season.
RS: Where are your main strengths this year?
HW: For our girls, our strength is in the youth and numbers of our team. With the entire varsity squad being comprised of freshmen and sophomores, this team will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Look for these girls, combined with our veteran runners who offer a steadying influence and maturity, to amaze you this season. They began with a second-place team finish at Dolores, behind only 5A Durango. The sky is the limit to how far they can go this season, plus they are a whole lot of fun to work with.
Our boys have the benefit of a unique combination of speed, perseverance, consistency, and strength in body, mind, and character. This boys team is one of the best I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. Both Will and I agree if they continue to progress this season they should be contenders for a region championship. 
RS: In what areas might you need work?
HW: For the girls, we need to focus on improving consistency in performance and working on managing expectations. They are a wonderful group of athletes with tremendous potential that can overwhelm them at times. Our coaching will focus not just on workouts but mindfulness and other life skills they can practice across their lives.
For the boys, we also need to work on expectations, but from a different perspective. Having our freshmen upset the pecking order has been tremendously good for this team and I hope there continues to be upsets in the rankings at all levels. 
RS: How do you stack up against region/state competition this year?
HW: The boys are an extremely competitive team in our region and have their eyes set on competing at state again this year. Their biggest competitors in our region so far look to be North Sevier. For state, the biggest competition will most likely come from reigning 2A state champions, Millard, who graduated only one of their top five runners from last year and easily dominated the competition.
For the girls, our newly-realigned region has the reigning multi-year 2A state championship team, North Summit, as well as the 2022 3A runners-up, Grand County. Grand’s top runner won the varsity girls division at the UIAAA Invite besting even the largest 5A & 6A girls.
Her younger sister is their team’s second runner and a serious threat. North Sevier also has a strong girls team. So our girls will face a tremendous battle at region to snag one of only three qualifying spots for state this year but I believe they have what it takes to get there.
RS: What do you hope to accomplish as a team this season?
HW: For both boys and girls teams we want the athletes to grow to be best versions of themselves they can be and have as much fun as possible in the process. We hope each athlete can look back at the end of the season and easily measure individual and team improvement and count themselves as a significant reason for their team’s growth. We hope cross country is a launching point for each person’s upward trajectory this year and beyond. We hope to inspire them to put fear aside and do the hard things their hearts wish for. 
RS: Is there anything else you’d like the readers to know about your team?
HW: Cross country is a difficult sport. You compete both as an individual and as a team. You run miles and miles in the hottest temperatures of the year with very few spectators or recognition. Many times you find yourself alone without another runner close by to distract you from your fear and thoughts of the suffering you’re undergoing.
There’s no fancy music, lights, cheerleaders, time-outs, or water breaks in a race. The voices inside you are telling you can’t do it and to stop but through this sport you learn the self-mastery to quiet that voice, to reach beyond what you thought was possible, and push yourself harder still. And while you’re doing it, you’re inspiring others, encouraging teammates, and learning how incredible you are and how you can do so much more than you thought possible.
You become part of the San Juan cross country team, finding some of the best friends who make up your team family there to support you, push you and help you be your best at cross country and beyond. They are your music, lights, cheerleaders, cold glass of water at the finish line, and more. This is what it means to be a cross country team. We are San Juan Cross Country!

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