Over the last four seasons, the Lakehead Running Club has grown to become a bonafide feeder system for the Thunderwolves varsity team and other colleges and universities.
Since attention was made to develop the key group of runners aged 15 to 18, the LRC has fostered the roster from single digits to 60 active competitors in that division. Varsity coach Kip Sigsworth and LRC club coach Joe McDonough have recruited runners from high schools across Thunder Bay.
“I’ve made it very clear to all the kids coming to the group that we have a nice balance of training to compete at a high level, but also creating an environment that is very supportive and very positive in general for the kids, which a lot of them crave these days,” McDonough said in a phone interview on Friday.
Add the equally-growing elementary school class (Grades 4 to 7) and the 10 Thunderwolves runners who act as mentors, and the entire youth program is up to over 100 members.
McDonough, who was also a varsity runner coached by Sigsworth from 2012 to 2017 before becoming an assistant coach, said the close ties between the age divisions are meant to fuel the Thunderwolves.
“We hope that some of them will stick around, but the way we coach the high school team we don’t put a lot of pressure or stress that they have to go to Lakehead,” said McDonough, a 27-year-old teacher. “Obviously when they get to that age we make the pitch to them and try to tell them to make the best choice for them academically and athletically.”
However, as the high school division has taken off, some runners have moved on to compete for schools such as the University of Manitoba, the University of Minnesota, Providence and Toronto and Waterloo.
“That’s kind of my philosophy,” he said. “The more kids we can get involved, the greater chance we have of keeping some of these kids here long term. Helping them stay in sports through their post-secondary career.”
Thunderwolves freshman Amy Stieh, who worked under McDonough’s system, had a stellar rookie season, capped off with a seventh-place finish in the women’s 300-metre race at the Canadian university championships in Edmonton earlier this month.
On Friday, Stieh was named Lakehead Univerity’s female rookie of the year.
The LRC managed to travel to Winnipeg for the Boeing International meet at the end of February before the indoor — and outdoor — track and field season came to a crashing halt.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus wiped out all remaining events, including a major meet in New York that two LRC athletes, Alexa Shrearer and Christiana Collins, were set to compete.
Like most sports teams, what was such a close knit group is being kept apart for now.
“As an organization, we’re not even allowed to collectively meet as a group. Just out of self-isolation measures and reducing the community spread of everything going on,” said McDonough.
McDonough said his crew was lucky to finish the indoor track and field season. The challenge is keeping fitness up without gyms as the transition to a possible outdoor season has begun.
The coaching staff has developed two separate workouts their runners can do at home. One consisting of strength and core floor exercises and the other involving treadmill or short outdoor hill training when the snow is clear.
“We’re hoping that when all of this is over the accumulation of doing all those workouts from home will have a basic level of fitness and strength gains so you’re not starting from scratch,” McDonough said.
“You don’t want to be sitting on the couch for two months or what not and once things start back up, you’re at square one.”