The Jenkintown boys cross country team has a saying: “touch the bench.”
It’s been around for about a decade, and as pack leader Luke Miller explains, it basically means to go the extra mile, do a little bit more each day.
“When you have 10 guys who consistently do extra each and every day, not for themselves but for their teammates, you are bound to be successful,” Miller said. “This team and program is different from any other, coming from such a small town and school. We have a bond like no other team.
“We do not have tryouts where big pools of talented runners come and try and make the team. We have 15-20 guys and we have to work with what we got. We work together but have fun while doing it and that is what separates us from the field. I know the six guys next to me on the line are gonna fight for me no matter who they are because that’s what we are built on.”
Jenkintown is in the midst of building a Class A dynasty, having captured two state titles in the past three years.
This year, the Drakes packed it in nice and tight at Hershey, winning the Class A trophy comfortably with 44 points (their closest competitor was Penns Valley Area, with 84).
“Winning the title again was certainly a tremendous experience for the entire team,” Jenkintown coach Carl Pennell said. “Many of the runners on this team ran on the championship team two years ago, but some of the runners were new to the team as well.
“On top of that, we came very close to winning last year but we fell short due to conditions beyond our control. So having a chance to come back and win the title one more time certainly brought a sense of satisfaction.”
Setting the pace >> Miller likes to attack a race.
“I gained good experience running from the front last season, and I like to run a little bit more bold than the rest of the guys,” the senior said. “(At states), I told them I wanted to set a tone early that we were not messing around, and we needed to run as fast as possible because we had no idea what other teams and individuals would do in the following heats.”
Miller’s mission for 2020 began as soon as 2019 came to a close.
“After last year’s DNF (did not finish due to illness, at states), I wanted to prove I belonged,” he said. “I had never finished in the top 10 in any cross country or track state meet, and that did not sit right with me. I knew I was in good shape and was ready for that day so I went for it.
“I knew that the faster I ran, the faster the next six red shirts would be. So I just did my thing, got out hard and tried to stay with Colton (Sands of Penns Valley Area) up front for as long as I felt I could, then worked with (teammate) Carter (Geer) the last mile to grab fourth and fifth.”
Miller (17:04) and Geer (17:05) placing fourth and fifth was instrumental for the Drakes. Oliver Michell crossed 11th in 17:18, Aiden Michell placed 14th in 17:26, and Andrew Schiller was 41st in 18:15.
The chain was linked perfectly.
“Goals have always been a huge aspect of our team’s success and my individual success,” Miller said. “We like to set big long-term goals in place in the spring after track ends to strive for all summer, and this year was no different. I made sure the guys knew we had one common goal and that was to bring home gold at Hershey.
“I did not want to set any huge time goals or anything this season. We had a lot of unknown meets, and it really did not look like the season to run fast, so I focused on just learning how to win. I knew every time I could toe the line and shoot for first, my team would follow right behind me and I’d do my part in putting down the lowest score I could.”
The unknown >> Due to the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty heading into the fall.
Jenkintown pushed through it.
“It would’ve been really easy for the guys to lose motivation and not to have worked as hard as they did during the summer,” Pennell said. “However, they were amazing with the work they put in and the dedication they showed. They showed the attitude of true champions pressing ahead even though they couldn’t be sure their hard word would be paid off with even having a season.” Said Pennell of what defined his team: “Work, work, and more work. Their dedication in a very difficult year is very much to be commended. On top of that, the camaraderie that we experienced as a team was awesome. They were truly a group of individuals that were a joy to be around every day.”
The extra adversity only made this year’s success that much sweeter.
“This title meant so much to me and the guys. We felt all year like there was a very real possibility the race could be canceled and our goals would just be destroyed, out of our control,” Miller said. “But, I give major props to the entire team for working hard all summer, and through the season regardless of meet cancelations, restrictions and worries we had.
“And personally, it’s been a goal of mine since our championship in 2018 to be able to lead this group back to another championship, and I fell just short of that last year with my unfortunate DNF, so I worked to make sure it would not happen again.”
Doing it again >> When the Drakes raced to state glory in 2018, they got a taste.
Said Miller: “Ever since we won that title two years ago, not a day has gone by that I did not think about winning another.”
“We’ve had a great run for many years here,” Pennell said. “I think our older students have continued to do a tremendous job of passing down an environment of working hard. We have a great time together and a lot of fun, but the kids also do a tremendous job putting in the work needed to succeed.
“For many years now, our older athletes have done a great job passing that on to the next group, and I hope that continues into the future.”
Prevailing in Hershey requires a lot. The Drakes knew what it would take.
“It’s something we’ve been working towards since last year when we came in third,” Geer said. “My freshman year (in 2017), our number two runner, Pat Wagner, passed out less than two hundred meters from the finish. We all came back the next year unsatisfied and ready to work every single day with a state title on our minds, especially Pat.
“As much fun as winning the state title is, it’s also about doing it with this group of guys. They put in work day in and day out and make training as fun as it can possibly be. I’m extremely grateful to be able to run with them every day and it’s something I’ll definitely miss next year.”
This year was particularly satisfying for Geer since he was healthy and at full strength.
“Last year was riddled by injury and I never really got the chance to race at full health, so that was something I was looking forward to more than anything,” the senior said. “I had some time goals set for myself but more than anything, I wanted to make sure I got the most out of myself as I could. I aimed to be the best version of myself as a runner and a teammate, not just for myself but for the team. I wanted to win for the team more than anything.”
The Drakes authored quite a chapter in their legacy this past year, and Geer is proud to have played his part.
“We definitely have a strong winning tradition at Jenkintown. This is now our second state title in three years and fourth top-five state finish in just as many years,” he said. “I think the tradition of winning can largely be attributed to the atmosphere on the team. Kids see the team and it’s something they want to be a part of, not just because of the winning, but because of how much fun we have.
“If not for COVID, we normally would be having team dinners, hanging out with each other, getting breakfast after workouts and long runs. This team is really fun to be a part of and I think all the runners on the team can attest to that – varsity or J.V. There’s no better way to breed success than by creating a fun but hard-working atmosphere, and that’s what I think we have here.”
At home on the course >> Asked what he enjoys most about coaching this group, Pennell said: “Well, for one thing I enjoy that I get to go out for a run too with the kids. However, most importantly, I told this group several times during the season, that win or lose, that the experience that we get to enjoy together is invaluable.
“I enjoy being with and joking around with the team, and just getting to know them as individuals. I’m not going to deny that winning certainly adds to the experience, but it’s the overall time with this team and all the other teams that I have coached that has made it all worthwhile.”
Miller grew up playing multiple sports. What he has experienced in cross country is unmatched.
“Of all the sports I have played at high levels, this one is the most challenging, but it’s the most rewarding,” he said. “That’s what I love about this sport. It has beaten me up pretty bad throught the last four years – physically and mentally – but the rush and enjoyment I get from crossing the line and getting a new P.R. or a big win against good competition is indescribable.”
Bonded together by two state titles they helped forge, Miller and Geer have a similar passion for the sport.
“What I enjoy most is the chance to push myself to the limit,” Geer said. “I don’t think there’s any other sport that quite offers that. Running is a sport where I can set out a goal for myself and do everything possible to reach that goal day in and day out. It gives me an outlet where I can focus my energy on something I love, where I can head out the door in the morning and come back knowing I made myself a better runner, a better version of myself in a way.
“That’s something I don’t think you get from any other sport. It’s something unique to running. Running helps me to enjoy the suffering because I’m able to do it for a purpose. And no matter whether I finish first or last in a race, I can always go out there and prove something to myself and know there wasn’t anything more I could do to produce a better result, and I love that feeling.”