After Michael Mulligan completed his first year as Orange High School boy’s cross country head coach in the fall of 2018, he pushed his runners to continue working hard in the winter, spring and summer to come in as an improved group for 2019.
Mulligan, who was a former coach at Jordan High School, said he almost immediately saw positive results from his request. His runners arrived in the fall in better shape and quickly showed growth from the year before.
“The results have been better, the performances have been better, times have been better, we’ve been more competitive than we were last year,” Mulligan said. “I’m really pleased with our progress in year two here.”
The head coach not only judged the improvement of his team by comparing personal best times for each runner from that of the year before, but he also compared the times between the team’s top runner and fifth and seventh runners to create a more balanced group.
“Although we want everybody getting faster, we also want to compress that gap because if we can compress that gap we’re going to have a better chance of competing at kind of the next level,” Mulligan said. “So I look at each kid individually and I’m hoping that they get faster, but then I’m also looking at them collectively and trying to get faster as a team.”
The Panthers have had plenty of chances to get faster as a team. In addition to racing in four conference meets this season, Orange has also competed in three invitationals. The team’s best result came at the North Carolina Elite Invitational at Ivey Redmon Park in Kernersville on Oct. 12.
Mulligan watched as 11 of his 22 runners set personal-best times on that day, while a handful posted season-best results. As has been the case all season, the runners were led by Bennett Fleming and Whitt Phillips, the Panthers’ top two runners in 2019. But the two seniors have not just led the way on the course, they’ve also been the leaders in practice, as well.
With the season winding down and the Big-8 Conferece meet taking place Thursday afternoon, Mulligan will soon be looking forward to the 2020 season.
Even without Fleming and Phillips, the Panthers will still have plenty of rising sophomores and juniors who have already seen time on the varsity squad to help strengthen the roster. Now all that’s left is for Mulligan to see his runners continue to put the work in away from the program during the offseason to become a top-notch program in a competitive conference that includes Cedar Ridge High School and Chapel Hill High School.
“I’m really trying to push these young guys to want more and so that requires a great deal of work,” Mulligan said. “That requires a ton of mileage during the offseason and we have increased the amount of mileage that we’re running, we’ve increased the quality of the mileage, but we still have a ways to go to get where I want to be.”