After the Brazos girls’ cross country team qualified for the state championship last year, it was the 19th time in the last 21 years head coach Eric Stuessel sent either an individual or a team to the last meet of the year.
In 2020, he returns nearly the entirety of that Cougarette team – and adds another previous state qualifier who missed the end of last year due to injury – and despite the uncertainty of the upcoming season amid a pandemic, Stuessel expects more success on the course.
“I’m returning six of the seven (girls) who ran at the state meet and they finished sixth in the state last year in Class 2A but now we’re moving up to Class 3A,” Stuessel said. “One of them who I’m also returning wasn’t there last year because she was injured at the end of the year is Maddie Kneip, who was my leading runner.”
Brazos is making its return to the 3A stage after the most recent realignment of the University Interscholastic League but Stuessel, entering his 25th year at the helm of the Cougar cross country program, doesn’t think the size gap will be difficult to overcome.
“Three years ago, when the girls’ team qualified for state in Class 3A, a couple of girls who are running now were on that team. Of the 12 teams that were there, only two of them were under 300 enrollment and we were one of those,” Stuessel said. “I think there was two that were between 300 and 400 and the other eight or so had 400 or above and we were still the size we are.”
Zachary Cortez, a two-time state qualifier, will lead the boys’ team in his final year alongside classmate Alfredo Ochoa who helped Brazos sweep the District 29 championship by claiming both the boys’ and girls’ team titles.
On the other end of the age spectrum, a trio of freshmen led the way on the girls’ side last year and will look to produce similar results again this year. The Garcia sisters, Esmeralda and Rubi, burst onto the high school track scene by being named all-state with top-15 finishes at the state championships last year.
“The top three runners at the state meet this past year were all freshmen and one of them won the district meet in Gracie Arteaga,” Stuessel said. “I have a good young core of girls plus a couple of girls who have been there before; Makinzy Kneip, a two-time state qualifier, and her older sister Maddie who didn’t get to run last year but she was really good as a sophomore.”
Although the coach knows what he has coming back, he doesn’t know to the full extent how ready the runners are to begin the season after how limited in-person workouts have been in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m returning a lot of experience, but I don’t know how well and how much they’ve been working out because I haven’t been able to see them,” Stuessel said. “I think once we come back together – if we’re able to stay in school – the training program I have been using for many years, we’ll just go back into that and it takes us about three, three and a half months to get where we need to be at the end of the season.”
Although the UIL allowed interscholastic meets to begin Aug. 17, the beginning of the season was looking to be a month after that according to Stuessel in the late-July phone interview. The coach said that was to allow more practice time with his team before hitting meets for real.
“Normally we start running meets in late August or Septembe. I’m not going to find a meet until the middle of or late September right now,” Stuessel said. “We’re going to take it cautious and go easy. We’ve got a long season ahead of us and our goal is always to get to the last meet of the season and we’ve done it consistently over the last 21 years.”