September 5, 2021
Year in and year out, the cross country program at Westfield High School is widely regarded as one of the best in the state and this year is no different as the Rocks opened the year ranked preseason number 17 in the state of Indiana, according to inccstats.com.
Westfield senior Kai Connor has played a major role in the team’s success for the past four years, especially this season. Connor’s record-setting performance thus far comes as no surprise to his coaches and teammates.
“Kai’s work ethic compares pretty favorably to other great runners that we have had,” Rocks head coach Josh Wachtel said. “He has had a little bit more work to do because he was a bit more raw when he started with us. He has put a lot of work into becoming the runner that he is and he has had some great gains in just even the past few years. He has made such tremendous strides.”
Connor has been a part of the cross country and track program since he was in seventh grade, which is a considerably short time for running standards. Coach Wachtel knew from the get go that Connor was going to be a special runner for Westfield.
“So when Kai was in seventh grade, I did not know who he was and he just came out for the track team,” Wachtel said. “He was still very new to the sport so he was not really sure what he was capable of, and I put him in the first leg of the four by eight-hundred. I said ‘Kai, I need you to just go with the leaders and hang on as long as you can.’ So he toes the line, the gun shoots, and he takes off with the leaders for a full lap. He ends up running like a fifteen second [personal record] for the eight-hundred, and I remember that he came up to me and said ‘coach I am sorry, I let them go. I gave everything I had.’ I was like, ‘Kai, you just dropped like fifteen seconds.’ He was so fired up. I think that was maybe the first moment where he knew that he could be really good at this. It has been a complete upward trajectory [since] and it has been awesome to watch.”
As Wachtel mentioned, Connor’s development as a runner has sky-rocketed ever since then. The team has not only relied on Connor to be the consistent number one, but also an impactful leader for the rest of the guys.
“He has grown so much as a vocal leader for us over the past few years,” Wachtel affirmed. “Usually when we do team meetings now, he’ll always chime in with something and guys are really motivated by what he says because he sets good goals for us, and then I think that sort of inspires other guys to try and achieve [these goals] as well.”
Three of Westfield’s other varsity runners, Josh Barnett (12), Aidan Wright (12), and Owen Flynn (11), agree that Connor’s leadership traits have helped bring out the best in the team.
“He is definitely somebody that leads by example more than anybody else that I can really think of,” Flynn claimed. “Although he is naturally talented, he is still one of the hardest workers on the team, and he always finds a way to remain focused and composed, while also having fun with the team, showing that he cares more about others, not just himself.”
Connor has not only impacted his team as a leader but as a friend. Wright acknowledged that he feels that Connor has impacted him by always being a “lending hand” when he needs one. Barnett recalled a story of how they put their teamwork and brotherhood to the test.
“We had a race a couple weeks ago. It was a relay and we ran together,” Barnett said. “We ended up winning and I remember so vividly because we both just were running our [tails] off. We dominated the other teams, so I will always remember that.”
Both the Varsity and JV teams ran in the Brownsburg Invite on Saturday at Brownsburg East Middle School. The varsity finished second overall, but that came with several PRs, including one for Connor, who ran a blazing 15:33, enough to win the race as an individual. The Rocks evaded the tough competition of Carmel and Brownsburg to finish second, and the team hopes to carry this momentum into the remainder of the season.
Connor’s incredible season thus far did not come without some adversity.
“Because of COVID, I wasn’t able to do a lot of visiting over the summer at colleges, so I have been having to do that during my season, which I have had to miss out on a couple of races,” Connor said.
However, Connor is ready to get after it for the remainder of the season. And as the team gets into postseason running, Connor is ready for the challenge it presents.
“For the remainder of the season my goals [are] individually to get to state of course but I’m also trying to finish top-five there. I have beaten a lot of guys in the top-ten. The goals for the team are to get to state by doing well in the postseason. We have struggled at semi-state the past few years so we are just trying to beat teams that we normally don’t.”
In order for the team to advance to the cross country state championship, Westfield has to go through one of the toughest semi-state lineups throughout the state. The Shelbyville semi-state will feature four of the top-ten preseason teams. Despite this, Connor remains confident in his teammates and their chances at advancing when the time comes.
“We just have to get it together and I am confident in them. As long as they can trust in me, I think we can get the ball rolling.”