ST. JOSEPH — Eric Ponder is having the time of his life.
The Tuscola High junior cross-country runner posted a personal-best Saturday, for the second week in a row, as he ran away from the competition at the 42nd St. Joseph-Ogden Spartan Classic.
His time on the 3-mile street course (which finishes with the final 300 meters on the high school track) was 14 minutes, 39 seconds. A week earlier, he set his lifetime best at 15:18.
For the first 21/2 miles, Ponder said, “It was back and forth with me and the Oakwood kid (Jon Davis). It was good competition.”
Davis was the runner-up in 14:46. While the course mark (14:33, held by Monticello’s Steve Schroeder) was missed, Ponder ran the fastest time ever by a junior by 11 seconds, and Davis was the swiftest sophomore ever by five seconds.
Ponder’s summer training was much less than many of his competitors. Warriors coach Kristi Paulson believes the standout has even better days ahead.
“He has more in there, if he will tap into that in the summer,” Paulson said. “He has a lot of natural ability.”
For Ponder, running has been a longtime family activity, starting when older brother Doug Anderson — now an Army captain — was in school.
“It’s in my blood,” Ponder said. “My whole family has done it.”
Ponder plans to correct his lack of offseason work next summer.
“If I’d trained more, I’d probably be doing better,” he said. “I regret not training now.”
Paulson said Ponder has put himself in a position of prominence on the state scene by what he has done since practice started.
“He has worked hard and has pushed our other boys’ runners,” she said. “He has been very positive and has a great attitude. He has a very good chance to be one of the top few runners (at state).”
In the team chase, SJ-O and Monticello had top-five splits of less than 50 seconds, but it was Unity that was victorious in the 24-school race.
The Rockets placed two sophomores among the top 10 in a field of 170. Andrew Warnes was fourth, and Austin Woodard was eighth.
“The kids felt like they were capable of doing it, and they laid it on the line,” Unity coach Dike Stirrett said. “Their training has gone well, and we had some really good efforts.
“This was a huge win. This meet is very similar to the sectional. We’ll see a lot of those teams, plus a few others, at sectional. This should be a real confidence-booster.”
SJ-O’s Braydon Crozier placed seventh with a personal-record 15:21. He was barely in the top 20 after the opening mile.
“We had to be controlled through the first mile,” SJ-O coach Jason Retz said. “We got out and competed well.”
The gap between the team’s second and fifth runners was 11 seconds.
Stirrett had a third sophomore (Dawson Dodds in 22nd) among his top four runners. The Rockets’ other scoring runners were seniors Nick Godsell (15th) and Jacob Ping (38th). Ping ran 1:40 faster than he did a year ago on the same course.
“He has improved dramatically,” Stirrett said.
SJ-O and Monticello tied for third place (behind Shelbyville), but the Spartans were awarded third on the basis of their sixth runner placing higher.
Monticello’s leader was Matthew Norvell (11th). The Sages’ top-five split was 49 seconds.
The only other area athlete in the top 10 was Urbana Uni High senior George Gunter (ninth).
Okaw Valley Conference rivals St. Teresa and Monticello swept the top two spots in the team race. SJ-O was third, benefiting from the fast pace of the leaders.
“The way they are running, we will try to run with them,” SJ-O girls’ coach Kristin Allen said. “They helped us run well.”
Three area seniors ended among the top six overall. Monticello teammates Hannah Houska and Emily Foley were third and fifth, respectively, followed by the Spartans’ Alyssa Pridemore in sixth.
“Our times were all good,” Allen said. “All of them were faster than their goal times. Alyssa is exceeding her own expectations.”
Uni High freshman Annemarie Michael finished between Houska and Foley. She was fourth, running the 2-mile layout in 11:22.69. Houska was timed in 11:19.53 and Foley in 11:22.94.
The distance — shorter than traditional girls’ races — Houska said, eliminated much of the strategy.
“It’s definitely an all-heart race,” Houska said. “I’m glad this is our only road race. That makes it special.”
The Sages, top-ranked in Class 1A, had a 42-second split between their first and fifth runners.
The individual winner, Effingham St. Anthony freshman Anna Sophia Keller, cut more than 16 seconds off the previous meet record, covering the course in 10:30.