The reigning Pioneer League cross country champion Iola Fillies began the 2019 season with holes to fill. Iola had lost the sisters Elka and Ursula Billings to Crest High. And track star Elysia Kunkler had informed head coach Marv Smith she would not be running cross country this fall.
Coming off of her self proclaimed “worst season,” senior Rachel Bycroft was ready to take the mantle as Iola’s number-one runner.
“I was nervous, but I also knew that all of us would need to step up to fill the gaps,” Bycroft said. “Being the number-one runner, I feel like I have to keep that spot. I feel like I have to get out there and lead. I know where I have to be, so that’s where I set my expectations.”
Over the summer, Bycroft worked out with running guru Ted Noble. Noble has competed in over 400 races during the course of his 45-year career.
Noble’s goal was to help Bycroft and other Iola cross country runners discover their paces at the start of a race. The workouts included repetitions of 200, 400, and 600-meter distances in order for runners to instill muscle memory as to what pace feels right for a distance.
Bycroft said the workouts helped her focus on speed, an element that isn’t typically a focus of long-distance running. Noble also helped improve Bycroft’s running form, something she has struggled with in the past
“Rachel got very consistent with her times,” Noble said. “She is a good runner, and always under control.”
As a sophomore, Bycroft was the Fillies’ number-two runner. As a junior, however, Bycroft struggled to reach her top form. Bycroft attributes last season’s disappointment to her low confidence and a poor start to the season. Although last season did not go as planned, Bycroft was determined to use her summer workouts as wood to the fire for a breakout 2019. Another task to tackle this fall is reaching state, which Bycroft has missed in her three previous attempts.
“Coming back from last season, I knew that I really wanted to do well this year,” Bycroft said. “Missing state has also pushed me to do well this year, because I want to make state along with our team. Whatever I can do to get myself better and team better, I try to do.”
Rachel Bycroft stands in front of Iola High School on Monday afternoon. REGISTER/ERICK MITCHELL
So far this season, Bycroft has earned her spot as the number-one runner. Though the first meet of the season at Anderson County, Bycroft finished back at 11th, she has finished fourth or better in three of the last four meets. Smith has been pleased with Bycroft’s senior year.
“The best part of Rachel’s cross country race is the last mile,” Smith said. “She is going around people in the last mile that are just looking to get to the finish line. That is where she has been successful.”
“Rachel is a sweetheart in every sense of the word, whether it be at home or in school. She is the leader of our girls, but Ella Taylor and Kelsey Morrison are right there with her. Our three senior girls are the glue that is holding this team together. Rachel is one of those quiet leaders, and everyone respects her because of her hard work and team attitude.”
Although Bycroft expresses a love for running, her competitive nature is what keeps her striving to place higher, and finish faster.
“I’m very competitive,” Bycroft said. “I’d say I like races more than practice. Some people aren’t that way because races give them nerves. But I love race day and the competition it brings.”
Other than cross country, Bycroft is involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and a member of the National Honor Society (NHS). For FCA, Bycroft is looking forward to setting up the group’s yearly event, Fields of Faith, and plans to help the organization impact the community. As a member of NHS, Bycroft fulfills her required community service hours by being a coach for the Iola Recreation Department during basketball season, and helping during Sunday school at Rivertree Christian church.
As a senior, Bycroft already has her future endeavours under wraps. She plans on becoming a first-grade teacher and has her eyes set on attending Kansas Wesleyan University. Running in college is also a goal for Bycroft, and would compete at Kansas Wesleyan, but an offer from Ottawa University is also tempting.
“I want to do really well this season,” Bycroft said. “The coaches have told me where I would be on their team, and I’m not at the top or the bottom. But I want to end my senior year knowing that I’d be in a good placing in the conference or region that I end up going to.”
Before focusing on future plans, Bycroft still has the present to deal with. Iola’s JV and middle school runners will compete today at Eureka. Bycroft and the rest of Iola’s varsity runners will compete at Independence on Thursday.
This feature is a part of The Register’s Allen County Area Athletes of the Month series. At the end of each month, The Register nominates three male and three female athletes for readers to vote on and the winners get named Athlete of the Month and an opportunity to be featured in the paper throughout the next month. To nominate your favorite athlete, just click here or email the sports desk at email@example.com.