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Running numbers: OCA’s Griffins cross country a dynasty

Northwest Arkansas school builds running legacy

Published: November 28, 2023   
Courtesy Ozark Catholic Academy
The top five runners for the boys’ cross country team at Ozark Catholic Academy are Ben Frederick (left), Joey Squillace, Liam Burney, John Paul Schaefer and Isaac Pohlmeier.

Ozark Catholic Academy is a tiny independent Catholic high school nestled into the picturesque Northwest Arkansas countryside. 

Being a relatively new entity, it’s not long on frills and that includes the lack of its own gym and athletic facilities. But at least it’s decorated nicely with multiple state championship trophies to announce its presence in the 1A classification.

Primary among these accolades is the trio of state cross country titles which the boys squad just put the finishing touches on at the 2023 state meet in Hot Springs. Each of the awards comes with its own story — the gritty band of upstarts that jelled just in time in 2021, the ripening talent that won despite a team-wide case of the flu in 2022 and the juggernaut that steamrolled all competitors in 2023.

“It was our best team to date,” said coach Alesia Schaefer in a massive display of understatement. “All five OCA scorers made All State and that only happened to three teams in all of Boys 1A-6A classification: Bentonville, Mountain Home and OCA.”

Led by defending state overall winner, junior Isaac Pohlmeier, the Griffins destroyed the 1A field, placing all nine runners in the top 25 placements at state, including five in the top 10. 

Pohlmeier notched his second straight individual win in dominating style — in a sport where winning by 10 seconds is considered a blowout, Pohlmeier’s 16:31.04 over the 5K course beat the second-place finisher by nearly a minute.

“This (title) felt like a giant team. We’d worked on running in packs, and we’d built a strong relationship with each other,” Pohlmeier said. “Going into it we knew that we had a really good chance to win this going away, but we still wanted to push each other as teammates to be the best runners we could be. That was a lot of fun.”

Top 10 finishers and their times include junior Joey Squillace in fifth (17:59.96); sophomore Ben Frederick in seventh (18:29.83); senior John Paul Schaefer in ninth (18:42.30) and sophomore Liam Burney in 10th (18:42.57). Pohlmeier, Squillace, Frederick, Schaefer and Burney all earned 1A All State designation.

The win bested second-place Kingston by 80 points and finished well enough that their performance would have won the boys team scoring in 2A and 3A as well. Only 6A Bentonville, a recognized Arkansas cross country team, won with such ease.

“The main mentality was just to do what we had done in previous years,” Squillace said. “I knew our team had great potential. To be honest, I didn’t realize how well we could run as a whole. I was just really proud of all the hard work we put in and that just clearly showed.”

Team members said the combination of a proven training system and the experience and maturity of the runners made for a winning combination. John Paul Schaefer, who’s looking to run in college next year, said he was proud to have helped shape the culture at OCA that’s paid off so handsomely.

“Who you surround yourself with is a good indication of how successful you’re going to be. I mean we have good runners, but we also have runners that put in a lot of work to get to where they are,” he said. “Looking at our team and looking at what we’ve built up over the past few years, I def think we’re going to be able to pull it off again and win a fourth one.”

The latest win brings with it new challenges for the team as it seeks to extend its winning streak at state. Three straight titles automatically moves Ozark Catholic Academy up a classification next year, part of a competitive balancing system implemented by the Arkansas Activities Association. 

Looking ahead, no one on the Griffins is running away from this, though they have every expectation to do just that next season, on the course.

“We are returning four of our top five runners and then we have a couple of freshmen that we think are going to be really good. Going into 2A I think it will be a step up, but I think we’re going to be a really good team next year,” Pohlmeier said.

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