First-year Incline cross-country coach JP Donovan has some large shoes to fill. Fortunately for him, his talented group of high school runners should help fill them out just fine.
Donovan, a 26-year-old, 2005 Incline grad, took over the Highlanders’ program from longtime head coach Bill Devine, whose seventh girls state title last season — fourth consecutively — placed him in a tie with North Tahoe’s Warren Mills atop the NIAA’s all-time coaching list.
Safe to say, replacing one of the region’s coaching greats comes with its share of pressure.
“Absolutely,” said Donovan, a former assistant who ran track and cross country for Devine in high school. “There is such a high standard with the parents and kids on the team, because they’ve always been so good. Living up to all the things he (Devine) has done has been a challenge. I helped him coach the past couple years, but I didn’t realize the amount of work that he put into it until I took over.
“I have even more respect for him now. I’m working toward what he did.”
Devine hardly left the cupboards bare.
Incline returns all five runners who combined to bring home the fourth consecutive girls state championship last year. The Highlanders lost just one girl to graduation, Haley Kennedy, while they bring back state runner-up Stephanie Homola, a sophomore, as well as sophomore Hannah Laurie, who was fourth at state, senior Sophia Mourelatos (seventh state), junior Molly Franklin (eighth state) and sophomore Julia Golombik (12th state).
Senior Kate Ballan and sophomore Meghan Kelley also return to bolster the girls squad. Ballan and Mourelatos are co-team captains.
“I think we’re looking pretty good,” said Donovan, adding that there’s no telling who might emerge as the girls’ top runner. “Our four sophomore returners are all pretty equally strong at this point. They’ll give our two seniors a serious run for their money.
“It will be interesting to see who decides to run each other down at each meet we go to. It’s kind of a toss-up. They have different running styles, but I think any of them are capable of running the rest of them down. I’m pretty excited. Our practices have been fun in that way.”
While the girls return most of last year’s state championship squad, the Incline boys, who finished second at state in 2012, lost a handful of talented runners. In addition to Levi Dodge (fourth state) and Daniel Baron graduating, the Highlanders lost sophomore Owen Graffis, who is playing football, and sophomore Josh Lewis, who moved away.
“That’s a pretty significant part of our boys team,” Donovan said.
Despite the losses, Incline’s boys still have a deep roster led by senior co-captains Evan Vomund and Jake Ott, juniors Dylan Smith and Matt Hanna, and sophomores Ryan Eppolito, Nelson Bedient and Mitch Cornell.
“Evan is looking strong,” Donovan said. “I think he’s significantly faster. He’ll be one to watch for. And our sophomore and junior boys have also stepped up. I think some of them don’t even know how fast they’ve gotten yet. I think they are faster already than they were at the end of last year. So it should be fun to see what happens.”
The Highlanders, who have been forced to train indoors on certain days — or even travel out of town — due to the smoky air, are scheduled to begin their season with the Warrior Warpath at Whittell on Friday.