By KEVIN THOMPSON
He could be called the Lord of the Rings.
Just an ordinary guy on an extraordinary journey with a remarkable supporting cast.
He's Greg Cook, head coach of the amazing Greeley County Jackrabbits cross country team.
And from the past three seasons, he now has a ring for every finger on one hand and working on possibly two more rings next year.
That's because his girls team pulled off a "three-peat" and his boys a repeat at the state meet in Wamego in late October, a feat worthy of The Telegram's No. 2 sports story of the year.
Both teams won their respective regional on their home course. That was probably expected.
But on the state stage a week later, both teams winning was a good shock.
"I just really don't know what to say. It's a great day, just great," Cook told The Telegram after the Lady Jackrabbits made it a perfect Saturday at state.
While Greeley County has had a tradition of good runners, the 2010 season started out with plenty of questions.
For the boys, losing their top two runners to graduation meant the pressure to lead and perform fell on the shoulders of mainly underclassmen.
And for the girls, losing their team leader to graduation meant they'd have to rely on underclassmen, as well, but also with just four girls. Four is the minimum required to compete as a team.
All questions were answered at the state meet.
Sophomore Troy Wineinger placed second in 17:44.34. That in itself is remarkable considering that a year ago, he was the team's No. 5 runner.
"I felt really strong most of the race," Wineinger said following his state performance. "I worked my butt off all summer. I felt really good and I was able to give it all I had without any problem."
Last year's seniors, he said, were role models of leadership for this season.
"They taught me to be mentally strong," he said of Isaac Wilson and Kellum Schneider.
Cook was all praise for Wineinger.
"He's been solid all year," Cook said. "He's taken on the role of being a leader and I couldn't be more proud of him."
Rounding out the boys was senior Clay Robertson in 16th, followed by Isiah Stone (26th), Ralph Stone (31st) and Elijah Stone (50th).
Wineinger, who was a Telegram all-area first-teamer this fall, said his goals coming in to the season were to win a team title again, place in the top five individually, and break 17 minutes.
Call it 2-for-3 on the goals, and his time was only 10 seconds out of first, so the sky seems to be the limit for him.
For the girls, each place was crucial in defending their title. With only four runners, each spot counted, but they rose to the challenge.
Junior Kennedy Schneider placed second in 16:09.03, her best placing in three years of running at state.
She had been training for the individual moment. The team title, however, was a surprise.
"It was not expected at all. We only had four girls running so all our times had to count," she said.
Senior Carly Robertson placed 11th, freshman Kelli Holthaus was 18th, and sophomore Monica Valeta, finished 55th.
Valeta's finish scored 36 team points, which helped cinch the win.
Valeta's performance as the No. 4 runner at state pleased Cook, but he said her story started weeks earlier.
"She knew the pressure was on and she stepped up and accepted the role," he said. "The other three girls did a great job of encouraging her and keeping her motivated.
In the three weeks leading up to state, he added, Valeta improved her running "unbelievably" and improved her state time by 30 seconds over her freshman year.
Following the state repeats, Cook had a hard time restraining his pride in his runners.
"We've got a great bunch of kids. It's phenomenal," Cook said. "It's the tradition that we have had. We just continue to get the right kids out and as long as we continue to do that I'll be smiling from ear to ear."
For the coach who has been there and back again, the next chapter to be written in this storied saga will continue next year.
Make room for more rings?
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