Spain Park cross-country looking to improve, maintain

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

HOOVER – Last season, the girls from Spain Park placed third in the 7A state cross-country meet behind very talented teams from Mountain Brook and Hoover. The boys, by contrast, failed to make it out of the hyper-tough 7A Section 3 meet, and their season ended without a trip to the state meet. This year, as head cross-country coach Michael Zelwack heads into his 13th season at Spain Park, the expectations are different for his boys and girls team in some ways, but the same in a broader sense.

The girls team that finished third in the 7A state meet last year graduated a number of key pieces. Sarah Sims McGrath, Zoe Shore, Emily DiMercurio and Bailey Condone were all seniors on that team last year that are now gone. For Zelwack, that’s a tough class to replace.

“That was a heavy senior class,” Zelwack said. “Not just from a talent perspective but from a leadership one as well. They put a lot of effort into leading that team and it culminated with a strong year.”

Now, heading into 2016, Zelwack only has a few girls with varsity running experience. One is Isabel Caddo, who missed the state meet last year with a stress fracture but is expected to be one the leaders for this girls’ team this year. Caddo is a senior, but last year was her first year running cross-country. Her personal best in the 5K is an 18:54.40, which she ran last year at the Dew it On the Trails race, and she will be counted on heavily this fall. The other is Holland Lidikay, who is just a freshman. Lidikay ran a 19:26.20 as an eighth grader, and placed 21st overall at the state meet to boot.

“I knew I had two strong girls coming back in Isabell and Holland, and I knew I had some girls running around 21 minutes (in the 5K),” Zelwack said. “But they’ve been working, and in the last two weeks I’ve started to see that hard work come to fruition.”

Among those girls who have surprised in the early going are softball stud Mary Katherine Tedder along with Lilly Pudlik.

“Mary Katherine and Lilly were two kind of off-the-radar girls last year and are owning practices right now,” Zelwack said. “That’s been really encouraging to see for sure, all of that hard work come to fruition.”

By contrast, the boys from Spain Park return nearly everyone. Cole Dillard, Morgan Becker, Jacob Werner, Isaac Shore, Kai Ozug, Alex Watson, Elijah McKinley, Dylan Seltzer and Andrew Gedgoudas are all back from the team that finished last in the 7A Section 3 meet a year ago.

“Last year I knew we were going to take our lumps,” Zelwack said in regards to the boys’ team. “We took our lumps harder than I would have liked, but this year we’re not as naïve as we once were. My expectations are for them to earn what I know they’re capable of doing.”

The No. 1 guy for the boys’ team is junior Cole Dillard, who ran a 16:53.74 last year at the Jesse Owens Classic. Dillard will be expected to go low for this group, but the next four spots are wide open. Zelwack said he has seen good things from both Shore and Gedgoudas so far thus season.

While the girls’ and boys’ teams are coming into this season with different backgrounds, the overarching theme for both teams this year is the same for both.

“Really what I’m working on isn’t a time or a place expectation,” Zelwack said. “We just need to be tough. Rather than saying, ‘We’re going to be here’ or ‘We’re going to do this,’ I’m trying to test their toughness for challenges I know are coming later in the year. We have to develop that toughness component.”

Spain Park will start the season on Aug. 26 at the University of Montevallo’s Early Bird Twilight Classic.