As an unofficial start to the fall cross country season, area prep distance runners converge annually on Missouri Southern’s Tom Rutledge Cross Country Course for a practice meet.
And over the past several years, the top male finisher at the “warm-up meet” has not only staked claim to being the area’s best harrier, but also went on to have a stellar campaign.
First it was Webb City’s Ryan Riddle. Last year it was Carthage’s Clayton Whitehead.
This year, Joplin junior Micah Bruggeman is striving to establish himself as the area’s top male distance runner.
“My freshman year it was Riddle and my sophomore year it was Whitehead,” Bruggeman said. “And after they won this meet, they both took second at state. Now it’s my turn. I want to do something special this year.”
In Saturday morning’s practice meet featuring athletes from Joplin, Webb City, Carthage, Carl Junction and McDonald County, Bruggeman crossed the line first, with Webb City’s Haddon Spikereit second and Carthage’s Noah Talamantez third.
“This is always one of my favorite meets,” Bruggeman said. “It’s not quite as long as a normal race, so it’s more enjoyable. And it’s a comfortable course. I love running out here.”
Noting Bruggeman’s showing on Saturday is just the opening act for what could be an outstanding season, Joplin coach Dustin Dixon said his standout has the ability to pace the pack of area runners throughout the fall season.
“Micah’s definitely in that mix,” Dixon said. “He’s a true middle distance runner. This distance (5K) is a little bit more of a stretch for him. But that’s part of his growth process and he knows that. I know he’s capable of meeting that challenge.”
During last fall’s cross country season, Bruggeman was fourth at the Central Ozark Conference Meet, 11th at the sectional and 74th at the Class 4 state meet, touring the course in 17 minutes, 21 seconds.
He owns a personal best time of 16:10 in a 5K. Four times he’s recorded times under 17 minutes.
Bruggeman hopes to go one step further this year.
“I didn’t do as well at state as I wanted to last year,” Bruggeman said. “This year I definitely want to get all-state (top 25). I would prefer to be in the top 15 or higher. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Bruggeman is coming off a stellar track and field campaign. At last spring’s Class 5 state track meet, Bruggeman finished third in the 800-meter run and sixth in the 1600.
The son of Maria and Jared Bruggeman currently owns personal best times of 1:55 in the 800, 4:18 in the 1600 and 9:46 in the 3200.
“He had a breakout season in the spring and he has big goals this fall,” Dixon said. “Do I think he’s capable of being a top-10 guy at state? Of course. I think he’ll finish much higher at state than he did last year.”
Bruggeman noted he gained a lot of confidence from the spring track season. And he’ll look to carry that momentum over to the fall cross country campaign.
“I showed what I can do in track, now I need to elevate myself in cross country as well,” he said. “That’s the plan.”
In addition to Bruggeman, Dixon also expects big things from senior Evan Northcutt, who placed 24th at last year’s sectional meet and 77th at state.
“We’ll have Micah and Evan up front and we feel real confident about that 1-2 punch,” Dixon said.
As far as the JHS girls, senior Katie Gray and sophomore Jennalee Dunn have stood out in practice thus far, Dixon said.
Gray finished 12th at last year’s COC meet and was a sectional qualifier.
A newcomer to the program, Dunn qualified for the state track meet in the 1600 last May for Thomas Jefferson.
“I think both of those girls have a shot at qualifying for state this year,” Dixon said.
Dixon noted the rest of the varsity spots for both teams are still up for grabs.
“We are developing some depth right now,” Dixon said. “I’m optimistic. We’ve had some good work and I’m excited to see how we’ll finish. If we can develop good race day habits, the results will speak for themselves in a couple of months.”
Joplin will officially open the season on Sept. 7 at the Southwest Missouri Cross Country Coaches Association Meet in Bolivar.
Joplin’s Micah Bruggeman runs to a first place finish at Saturday morning’s warm-up meet at the Missouri Southern cross country course.Jason Peake/Globe