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OCA cross-country groundbreakers still leading the pack

Running duo continue adventure beyond school

Published: January 29, 2024   
Courtesy Alesia Schaefer
Alesia Schaefer, Ozark Catholic cross country coach, catches up with former students Joseph Ramirez (left) and Hayden Poe after the Chile Pepper Collegiate Men’s Prairie Fire 8K Sept. 29 in Fayetteville.

To the casual observer, Hayden Poe and Joseph Ramirez look like any other college students. 

All but indistinguishable from their peers, except for the lean, easy gait gained from their athletic pursuits, they make their way through endless rounds of classes, labs and exams, the same as the thousands of classmates and peers who surround them.

But the duo is not just another couple of college kids looking forward to the weekend. Both Poe, who’s attending the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Ramirez, who studies kinesiology at Bentonville’s Northwest Arkansas Community College, anchored a burgeoning running program in high school, setting the pace for Ozark Catholic Academy to become a cross-country powerhouse virtually overnight. 

And they continue to lean on running in their own ways for mental health and competitive glory. 

Both runners were essential to the dawn of the OCA Griffins' dominance, a resume that now includes the last three consecutive 1A boys' state titles. The championships began in Poe’s senior year, and even today, that inaugural win doesn’t seem quite real.

“At the time that we won that first one, (a state title) was something I did not see coming, remotely,” he said. “If you’d asked me the summer before, I wasn’t even thinking about it. Then it all just kind of materialized over the course of a season.”

Ramirez, a 2023 OCA graduate, was also part of that win, as well as the school’s second state title before entering NWACC where he competes for the school’s cross-country team. He said competing in high school was not only meaningful — it put him on his current path of running at the collegiate level.

“In high school, we did more of a team training, and I think that set us apart,” he said. “We spent a lot of time together, we knew each other pretty well. We knew what each other could do and what we couldn’t do, and we pushed each other to those limits, just to help each other overall.”

The experience helped forge confidence, which has come in handy as Ramirez has made the transition to the college ranks.

“The training in college is really different, especially from Coach (Josphat) Boit, since he’s been a world championship athlete, and he’s really well-known,” Ramirez said. “The workload is a lot more, and it’s a lot tougher than I would have thought. Still, I enjoy being part of this team.”

While Poe, a 2022 OCA graduate, chose to not pursue intercollegiate running, he has also benefited from the lessons that his high school athletic experience taught him. He’s found a home with a local running club, which he credits with helping him adjust quickly to the pressures of college life.

“High school dictated so much of my life and for that to all of a sudden totally drop off and you have to acclimate to a totally new stage, that took me a minute,” he said. “I had so much freedom starting my first year of college and learning what to do with that, where I’m not always being told where to go and what to do, definitely took some time to get used to.”

Poe turns to running to recenter and said the running club has only added to that experience. In addition to giving him training partners, the club also enters local running events, which feeds Poe’s competitive side.

“I still do the solo runs from time to time, but it’s hard to really stay motivated when you’re just doing that,” he said. “It’s a lot easier when you have a group of people, and you can push each other. When I found out the running club also did races, I was all in.”

In addition to their other obligations, both young men have also stayed in touch with their high school alma mater and help where they can to spur the development of the athletes left to carry on the Griffin legacy in their wake. It’s particularly personal for Ramirez, whose younger sister currently runs for OCA.

“Over the summer I ran with them and trained with them,” he said. “I’ve stopped by for a couple practices and gave them my thoughts about the things I’ve learned from the college experience. I’ll give them tips on what to improve on if they decide to go to the next level.”

“Last year especially, I went to several of their meets and cheered them on,” Poe said. “I’ll still get together and run with those guys from time to time and we all follow each other on Strava, which is the social media of running.”

Time waits for no one, and nobody knows that better than runners who compete as much against the clock as each other. Both Poe and Ramirez understand their days running at their present level are numbered, and both are doing what they can to make the most of it, be it Poe through his club or Ramirez in pursuit of his dream of competing for a four-year college before he’s done.

But wherever the sport takes them, they will always have a home at OCA and a piece of the titles that planted a dynasty still in the making.

“What I would tell the kids coming up is, a lot of it is trusting your coach’s training plans for you and being consistent,” Ramirez said. “I’d say, most importantly, to have fun and to compete. If you’re not having fun, it won’t be worth it in the long run. You want to win, but you want to have fun while you’re doing it.”

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