Cross country returns to Mathews after Wallace created interest

Narrow misses, collapsing before the finish line, an injury that hinders his senior cross country season and two All-Ohio finishes in the Division III 1,600-meter run.

Kenny Wallace felt the heartache, but had joyous moments standing on the podium inside Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.

The 2017 Mathews High School graduate eventually earned academic and athletic scholarships.

Many watched Wallace’s exploits, including those in the student body.

His accomplishments made such an impact that Mathews is bringing back its cross country program this fall — the first time the school has fielded the distance sport since 1989.

Chris Vesey, who was a first-year assistant track and field coach, is the new coach. Vesey is a 2004 Mathews graduate.

“Sometimes to get something rolling, there’s got to be that one guy that takes the initiative,” Wallace said. “I wanted to continue my success from track season into the fall after 10th grade, so I opted to start cross country at Mathews. I feel like others are now following the template I’ve laid out.”

Wallace ran distance for two seasons, but was an unofficial member of the McDonald boys cross country program — a school which has won seven state championships.

The knowledge of the McDonald trio of coaches Chris Rupe, Lou Domitrovich and Kyle Joynes, along with other mentors around the area molded the future Loyola (Chicago) University runner.

“People saw the success Kenny had out there, how he got the success was training for cross country,” Vesey said.

The new cross country coach has 12 people signed up for this fall (six boys, six girls) and nine out training.

He wants to have his runners visit places like Mosquito Lake, Mill Creek Park, Howland Township Park and Liberty Park as part of their distance routine.

It’s something Wallace learned from programs like McDonald and Maplewood.

“Just change it up so you’re not running the same route every day while you’re training,” Vesey said. “Kenny saw that from those programs.”

Vesey was a former 400-meter runner at Mathews, but ran the mile and 2-mile when needed.

He’s part of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and runs daily as part of his training.

He saw a need for the distance program to return to Mathews. Volleyball, soccer and football are the school’s other fall sports options.

“Cross country is a great way to build for that because it builds your endurance,” Vesey said.

He’s hoping the Kenny Wallace effect casts a wide net at Mathews.

It’s already hooked Butchie Strama, an incoming junior who started in track and field as a thrower and eventually became a 4×800-meter relay runner. Strama is running 2 miles a day.

“Seeing the success he had, he told me, ‘I want to be the next Kenny Wallace,’ “ Vesey said. “How can I be the next Kenny Wallace?’ I said if we could have a cross country team that would help you.

“For the influence Kenny Wallace has on those kids, it’s phenomenal.”

Wallace plans to keep a watchful eye on this program, one he is assisting before leaving for Chicago.

He hopes to see this distance program continue to thrive, something he learned when training with McDonald’s program.

“Coach Rupe and Domitrovich have welcomed me more than I could have ever imagined, and I’ve made some great friends there also,” Wallace said. “So in all truthfulness I’m glad I’ve spent so much time learning from them, because now I can help to promote running and help the cross country team at my school. As Rupe would say, ‘I’m trying to pay it forward.’ “