After excelling in a COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Choctaw cross country teams look to build off of that success going into this season. With the women never placing worse than second, and the men never placing below fourth, the Choctaws were one of the best and most consistent teams in the Gulf South Conference. On top of these great overall performances, multiple Choctaw runners put up record-setting individual performances as well, including school records from Jazmin Hernandez, Kathy Hammond, and Evan Del Rio.
In Coach Matthew Reneker’s time at MC, the cross country teams have seen steady improvement, with their average finishes getting higher and higher in his time as an assistant and since becoming head coach in 2020. Rising sophomore Jacob Britt attributes all of that success to Reneker and his ability to motivate his team: “Coach is super successful and very entertaining and I think we owe our good performances all to him because he cares so much.”
Reneker spoke about working to empower the upperclassmen on the teams to be vocal among their teammates and buy into the culture of leadership he has tried to instill within the team. He talked about making them want to perform not just for him or themselves but for each other and growing that sort of mentality throughout his time at MC.
One of the biggest challenges for the teams will be to incorporate their freshman runners into a new environment where they are working as a part of a team instead of for themselves. “A lot of these 18-year-olds that are coming in are for the first time not the best on their team, and have to learn some of the subtle nuances of collegiate sports.” He went on to talk about how many of their mentalities coming in were to simply run as hard as they could and nothing else, and that while tactics aren’t often discussed in cross country, they would be very important to their success. Reneker put much of the responsibility for installing those tactics mid-race on his upperclassman leaders and stressed the need for them to learn to communicate them effectively. “When they get out there they won’t see me for 20 to 30 minutes and so I need them to be able to articulate in their own way what the gameplan is.”
When speaking about building off of last year’s success, Reneker said that much of it could be attributed to the “learned knowledge” of those upperclassman leaders on the team. Combining that with the “youthful exuberance” of the incoming freshmen is generating lots of excitement within the team right now according to Reneker. He also said that they are all looking forward to the new heights the team could reach and that at the end of the season he hoped to see both the men’s and women’s teams competing in nationals. Britt echoed both that excitement and the lofty hopes for this year, saying that while last season was exciting, they have big goals for the next one.
Both the men’s and women’s teams will kick off their seasons on Friday, Sept. 3 at the Mississippi College Season Opener at Choctaw Trails in Clinton. Their season will run through the fall and culminate with the GSC Championships on Oct. 23, followed by regionals and nationals in November.