Wallace on mission in cross country

McDONALD – Kenny Wallace harnesses his past pain and suffering, exuding emotions that drive the Mathews High School senior through a 3.1-mile race.

His face puts on full display the pain he endures as his running shoes glide over the grassy course, pulling up the occasional clump of turf in his wake.

Wallace had his share of heartache in track and field, but nothing like he had in cross country last season.

The Mathews senior was one of the most dominant runners in the area and seemed poised to head to the Division III state meet.

He saw the straightaway, with the finish line well in sight at the Division III Boardman Regional. Wallace collapsed with 50 meters to go.

He eventually crawled over the finish line to finish in 24th place. The top 16 runners not on a qualifying state team advanced to National Trail Raceway in Hebron for the state meet.

“I was sitting about ninth, I think,” Wallace said. “I started feeling wobbly. Everything got dizzy and I started rocking back and forth. Then the lights went out. I just came down on a knee. I wasn’t sure what happened. I can remember looking up, seeing guys like (Maplewood’s Nate) Keeney, (Jake) Hall and (Allen) Sparks passing me by. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ I tried to get back up. That’s when I realized it’s over. Once I got back up, I went right back down. I’m still shocked to this day how I finished.

“There’s a picture of (McDonald’s) Lucas Garland hurdling me. I’m crawling and he’s trying to jump over and avoid me. Everything was a blur. I couldn’t remember any of it, but I could remember laying down at the finish line. I couldn’t move. It felt like paralysis. I’ve been fine every since. It was one bad day, I guess.”

Wallace circled Oct. 29 on his calendar. The place: the cross country course next to Boardman High School – the site of the Boardman Regional.

He’s done this before, had a mission set forth and accomplished the goal.

It was the end of his sophomore year at the Division III track and field meet at Navarre Fairless. Wallace came within less than a minute of the fourth and final qualifying spot in the 1,600-meter run.

He finished second at the regional a year later and took fifth at state this past June.

That run in the spring of 2015 was one that changed Wallace. C.J. Seitz, a McDonald runner approached him after they both ran the 1,600. Seitz took ninth in that race.

He ushered Wallace over to McDonald’s tent and asked coach Chris Rupe if the Mathews runner could train with the Blue Devils. Mathews didn’t have a cross country team at the time.

Wallace began going to a RunInspired camp run by Rupe, and McDonald’s team camp. McDonald, which has sent a boys team to the state meet every year since 1999, adopted Wallace as one of their own.

Before that, he felt the pavement during road races, nothing like turf beneath his feet in cross country.

“We wanted to give him a running community to be part of everything with a support crew that everybody needs if they can get one,” Rupe said.

It was Rupe who told Wallace he needed to become a cross country runner as the summer of 2015 went along.

“He’s like, ‘You’ve got to run cross country,'” Wallace said. “You just can’t pass up on it.

“After that, I was like, ‘I got to run.’ I’d be wasting a lot of potential if I didn’t and represent my school in a way it hasn’t been represented in a while.”

So the cross country expedition began. Wallace, even though he ran the 1,600 in track, was not a cross country runner. He plays soccer, so running long distances never fazed him.

This was different, an endurance level he’s never experienced – 3.1 miles of perpetual motion.

Mathews then started a cross country program with Wallace becoming a team of one.

Jim Buckner, who is Mathews’ track and field coach, and Jeff Parent became Wallace’s cross country coaches. Parent is the official coach with Buckner assisting since he is also an assistant football coach.

“I knew the kid had heart. I knew he was athletic,” Buckner said. “I thought when he said he wanted to do cross country, I thought, ‘Ok, maybe.’ He’s the kind of person if he says he’s going to do something, he’s already done his homework. He knows he’s going to be at least hang with the upper part of it. I bought into it because I know him. I have nothing to lose. He started to doing really well, training harder and harder. I knew this is going to be his year.

“I hate to jinx it because I jinxed it last year. He’s definitely one of the premier runners in the area.”

“He puts in more work than anybody that I know,” Parent said. “He’s got the will to put in the work that it takes to get it done.”

Anthony Rossi, his cousin, a former standout distance runner at John F. Kennedy High School and at Miami of Ohio, is instrumental in Wallace’s training along with the Blue Devils.

McDonald graduate Zack Fedyski said the Mathews senior is like one of the McDonald team, since Wallace trains with the team and runs in Woodland Park a couple days a week.

“If he stays healthy, he could do tremendous things this year,” Fedyski said. “Just seeing how he worked last year and seeing how he progressed this year, he could do really, really well.”

Wallace said he’s found a balance he didn’t have last season.

He’s a center midfielder on the Mustangs soccer team. Wallace has around 70 goals and would like to get to 100.

He admits he’s a different soccer player since running cross country.

“It’s installed a patience in me,” Wallace said. “When I was a freshman and sophomore playing soccer, I’d get impatient. I’d burn myself out sometimes. Burn myself out by the first half. Get frustrated about not scoring.

“Cross country has taught me every race is not going to be great. You’re not always going to be in contention to win, but you’ve got to make the best out of it. You’ve got to find a positive in every time you go out on the field or course. That’s another Chris Rupe encouraging point there.”

After winning the boys race (11 a.m. start time) on Aug. 27 at the Billy Goat Challenge in McDonald, he went to Booster Field in Vienna to play Grand Valley in a 1 p.m. soccer match. There, Wallace scored three goals in a 3-2 victory over Grand Valley.

“He knows how to be a competitor in all the different sports that he does,” Rupe said. “I just love watching people compete. They know how they pour their heart into what they’re doing. Kenny is a guy who does that. He’s figured out how to get out there on the soccer field, out there on the basketball court, out there on the cross country course, track and just dump himself out there with every bit of heart he can put into it. It’s fun to watch him compete and see him flourish that way.”

Mentally, the Mathews senior knows how to succeed, just like he did during a running camp this summer competing against someone else.

“I thought, ‘Yea I’m hot and I’m tired, but this kid has to be hurting too,” Wallace said. “He hurt his way up to get next to me. We had less than half a mile. If I’m hurting, he’s got to be hurting way worse. I put a surge in and kept those words running through my mind.”

The Mathews senior is almost like the people’s runner. Spectators appreciate the passion Wallace has on the course.

“Everybody loves Kenny,” Buckner said. “Just standing in a crowd at any event. While they’re cheering for their own team or own kid, they’re cheering for Kenny.”

His focus is on finishing this year’s regional meet and qualifying for state.

“This year, I’m more fit than I was last year,” said Wallace, who is being recruited by Butler, Pittsburgh and Bowling Green for cross country. “Every workout I’m doing I’m looking at that regional meet around Halloween. That’s how I approached track season last year. Yeah, you don’t want to look too far ahead, but that really is my focus right now.”

If Wallace gets to cross the line at National Trail Raceway, site of the state meet, his pain and suffering will subside – quickly replaced with a burst of emotional fury, celebrating overcoming past shortcomings. Hopefully crossing the finish line in the top 10.

“With adversity with the different things, it’s neat to see him be able to get to celebrate,” Rupe said. “I was able to do this with near misses and everything. When things do go your way, it’s instead of a celebration, it’s almost a relief combined with celebration.”