Stephen Mugeche's junior cross country season certainly was different than his sophomore season, though it wasn't necessarily due to times or race finishes.
The Blue Springs runner didn't have the daily push that came from former teammates Simon Belete, a state champion now at Brown University, and James Barnett (UMKC). In practices, and even some races, it wasn't easy for Mugeche to push himself through a progression of improvement.
However, the end result was a notch higher than 2012. After taking fourth in the Class 4 state cross country meet as a sophomore, Mugeche was second this year, and he is The Examiner's Boys Runner of the Year.
"That was the No. 1 struggle I had this year," Mugeche said of pushing himself. "I'd been looking up to (Belete) ever since I started running in high school. "He always raced smart. When he went to college, I didn't think it would be that hard, but it was definitely a huge struggle. Time-wise it hit me a lot; I didn't have anyone pushing me.
"The first race I ran was probably the toughest race, at St. Thomas Aquinas. It took a lot longer than I would've liked to figure out how hard to push."
After taking 45th at state as a freshman (17:06.51), Mugeche clocked 16:01.39 for fourth in 2012, while Belete won in 15:48.16 as Blue Springs finished second as a team. This season, Mugeche covered the Oak Hills Golf Center course in Jefferson City in 15:34.43, 12 seconds behind winner Noah Kauppila from Marquette.
In the weeks before Mugeche won the Suburban Big Six, district and sectional races.
"All in all, we talked about him running some faster times than what Simon ran last year," Blue Springs boys coach Frank Gallick said, "but with the conditions of some courses, I'm happy with the outcomes. He really did save his best race for last.
"At state he ran almost 30 seconds faster than the year before on a very challenging course."
With Mugeche on a different level than the rest of Blue Springs' runners, Gallick said he had to alter practice regimens a bit, and that Mugeche's teammates didn't mind the different treatment.
"We had some injuries and illness and didn't have the same depth as we had the year before," Gallick said. "I made it to where he was out on his own a little more, or set a different interval with him. Sometimes I would have him hold back, then have him catch them.
"They kind of know the reality of the situation. I would challenge them by trying to stay with them. Stephen's one of those exceptional runners where you have to keep pushing him out there. He gets along so well with everyone on team, and they like hanging around with him."
Gallick said the Big Six conference race marked the first time he thought Mugeche was able to push himself to the fullest.
"That's where we really saw the confidence in him go up," Gallick said. "Then the next week with districts there would be Cole Rockhold (from Truman). That was the element he needed, to know he could push himself. We knew he would always be talented, but he hadn't won a big-time race."
For his part, Mugeche said he only truly solved his mental block at state.
"I ran a lot faster there than I did last year," he said, "and that was the whole goal for this year. I wanted to run a faster time this year."
The only higher goal left is the top spot on the state podium, though Mugeche said he won't alter his workouts in pursuit of that goal, and track season in the spring will offer a welcome change of pace.
"We're just focusing on putting in a lot of miles over the winter, then focusing on speed later on," he said. "Workout-wise I won't be doing any dramatic changes.
"I do a lot more speed work during the spring. I just love the chance of going from the 5k to the mile or 2-mile on the track. You don't have trails, and you know your pace a lot better."