Hempfield High School boys cross country runners typically begin their training for a fall season in mid-May. Those plans were altered a bit with the COVID-19 pandemic having forced Hempfield to remote learning last spring.
So team captains Evan Eshelman, Steven Sauer and Owen and David Jackson took it upon themselves to organize unofficial practices as a group, meeting almost daily with other teammates at Amos Herr Park in East Hempfield Township beginning May 18.
It was the first hurdle overcome, and the start of countless hours of hard work, for a Hempfield boys cross country team that has since won this year’s Lancaster-Lebanon League and District 3-3A team championships.
“Their goal all year long was to win the league championship, win the district championship and get to states,” third-year Hempfield coach Curt Rogers said.
This bunch isn’t satisfied with what they’ve accomplished, either.
“It feels good,” Owen Jackson said. “But at the same time it’s time to get ready for states.”
Jackson made those comments moments after Hempfield won the District 3-3A crown late Saturday afternoon at Big Spring. And Jackson didn’t even race last weekend. He’s been out since Oct. 1, when he sustained a stress fracture injury in his foot and has been in a walking boot ever since.
To that point, Jackson had been Hempfield’s No. 5 runner. Who took his place?
“My brother stepped in there,” Jackson said. “And Sam (Freedman) really ran well as a freshman.”
Owen’s brother is twin David Jackson. The pair have been running together since they were children, instilled for a love of the sport by their parents.
“It’s competitive between us two,” Owen Jackson said of his brother.
Leading the pack for Hempfield has been sophomore Aidan Hodge, who was the L-L runner-up who placed fourth at the District 3-3A meet. He’s had a strong pack of teammates on his heels all season. Junior Dale Winand placed sixth at the L-L meet and 18th at the District 3-3A meet. Senior Evan Eshleman placed seventh at the L-L meet and ninth at the District 3-3A meet. And sophomore Joseph Fahrney placed ninth at the league race and 11th at districts.
They’ve all managed to stay on the same page despite being at different grade levels.
“There’s not really a pecking order on the team,” Rogers said. “Seniors don’t rule the roost. Everyone has a say.”
That’s aided in part by the fact many of the Hempfield boys cross country runners are also long-distance runners on the track team. So this group is around each other most of the year.
“That makes us friends,” Owen Jackson said. “And it focuses us more because you just know that if that person is doing better than you I can push it and make it through the workout.”
Steering them has been Rogers, a 1983 Hempfield grad who ran for legendary Knights’ coach Jeff Bradley, later became the Hempfield head girls’ track coach in 2005 and took over for Bradley as Hempfield’s head boys track coach in late 2019. He replaced Terry Newman as the Black Knights cross country coach in 2017.
The Knights have gone a perfect 10-0 in league action in each of the 2019 and 2020 regular seasons. They’ve won every meet in which they’ve participated this season, leading to the L-L Section One, league and district crowns, and are now aiming to finish the year unblemished with a top performance this Saturday in Hershey, a feat Rogers thought possible back in August.
“This is a very special group,” Rogers said. “They’re fantastic.”