Koontz places third in meet

By Jim Laise — sports@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL — During the last two falls, Randolph-Macon Academy senior runner Erik Koontz has been the lead on two very different stages.

In 2013, Koontz reprised the role of Enjolras in the musical “Les Miserables.” He played the charismatic leader of the revolution who fought for the rights of the poor and oppressed masses of France.

Thursday, he was the lead runner for the Randolph-Macon boys’ cross country team, finishing a Yellow Jacket-best third place with a time of 18:55 on his home course.

“It’s a completely different feeling,” the senior said, comparing the two roles. “In one you’re part of a cast, but this is being part of a team. This is better because we are so close-knit here. We came through it together. We found that you get out of cross country exactly what you put into it.”

What Koontz “put into it” on R-MA’s Senior Day at the Delaney Athletic Conference championships was finishing tops among four Yellow Jacket runners who helped their team to a fourth-place overall finish on the boys side.

Their 81 points put them behind boys champion Trinity Christian (26), runner-up Fredericksburg Christian (67) and Wakefield Country Day School (70).

A year ago, Koontz was attending high school in Simsbury, Connecticut. Because of the weight of playing one of the main roles in the musical, he chose to put cross country on hold for his junior season. He competed as a freshman and sophomore for his team in Connecticut.

He transferred to R-MA in the second-semester of 2013-14 and became captain of the cross-country team this fall.

“He’s really improved,” said junior Jake Branham, who likely will move up to captain next season. “What have I learned from him about being a leader? Just about everything.”

Branham finished eighth overall with a time of 19:27, while Slayton Speer (28th, 20:29) and Cyrus Lesko (49th, 22:18) rounded out the scoring list of Yellow Jackets who competed on the undulating course, contained within R-MA’s campus.

As members of the top 16 individual boys finishers under cool conditions, Koontz and Branham earned All-DAC designations among the 105 competitors.

On the girls’ front, R-MA’s Ixel Ochoa (16th, 23:32) earned an all-conference medal. Her Yellow Jackets finished last overall (186 points) among the eight teams entered.

There were 10 teams competing for the boys’ championship.

“One thing I’ve learned about leadership is that you have to put action behind your words,” said Koontz. “You can’t say one thing and then do another. In “Les Miserables” as Enjolnas, you have to hit some very high notes for a boy. That puts you in the lead and you can’t mess up. In cross country, you have to command respect, and the best way to do that is by showing it on the course.”

Actually, this was the third of three DAC cross-country events, with the first held at Foxcroft, the second at Fredericksburg Christian, followed by the championships at R-MA.

Koontz said he has finished as high as third in a previous DAC event, but added that he “shaved about 40 seconds off” of his previous personal record.

Branham was edged out of seventh place by Joshua Rector of Trinity Christian (19:26). He said he had finished anywhere between third and 10th place in previous meets during the regular season. He liked to start at a slower pace in the pack, then kicked it on the third mile on a 3.1-mile course.

Koontz said the sound of the crowd, as the runners finished the course on the R-MA track, was what pushed him toward the finish line.

“That last quarter mile — hearing everybody cheering your name — is really something. It pushed me toward my (personal record),” he said.

“Erik is our captain,” said R-MA coach Josh Ilnicki, “and, as such, he has been a great leader for us this year. He’s been battling Jake for our first runner this year, so this was exciting for him. He’s a leader for us and has a lot of emotion inside of him. He has incredibly high standards.

“Jake is another one. You ask him to run hard and he asks, ‘How fast?'”

While Koontz and Branham medaled for the boys, Ochoa was the only such designee on the girls side.

“I finished in the top 10 at Foxcroft, but I did a lot better here than I did the last time we ran this course. I started out really fast then, but fell behind when I got tired. This time I started out more slowly on the hills. The last mile is pretty flat, so that’s where I decided to kick it in,” she said.

The course rounds the campus in expanding circles until both the girls and boys run the approximate last 400 yards on the track.

Trinity Christian’s boys’ team was the regular season Delaney champ, along with earning first place in Thursday’s race.

Fredericksburg Christian’s Renn Garbee was the boys’ champ with a time of 18:20. Trinity placed four runners among the leader board’s first 12 places.

Trinity Christian also claimed the girls’ regular-season championship, but Wakefield (35 points) ran to the victory at RMA. Trinity (42) was runner-up followed by Foxcroft (43) and Seton (47).

Wakefield’s Ali Russell (21:16) scored the best time among the 70 who participated. The top four Wakefield girls finished among the first 20 finishers.

Ilnicki said his boys’ and girls’ teams would compete in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association championship at Woodberry Forest on Nov. 7. The VISAA event is open to all members of a member school.