A successful junior year of running provided enough motivation for Groveport Madison boys cross country standout Illyaas Haji to dedicate his summer to improvement.

In the hopes of becoming a two-time Division I regional qualifier, the senior attended a cross country camp in northeast Ohio and increased his daily mileage to more than double the length of a normal 3.1-mile race.

"I've been practicing by myself, waking up in the morning around 6 and doing at least seven miles every day, trying to improve myself and get used to logging a lot of miles," Haji said. "I want to feel like three miles is nothing to me because I double that every single day. Eventually, I hope I can do a 10 (-kilometer race) easily."

Haji, who finished 14th in the district 2 meet and 33rd at regional last year, started this season by placing third (17 minutes, 21.9 seconds) in the New Albany Invitational on Aug. 19. The Cruisers scored 173 points and finished fifth of 10 teams, behind the host and OCC-Capital Division rival Eagles (35).

"We've seen a lot of growth and a lot of focus (from Haji)," third-year coach Vincent Gay said. "(The camp) that really got him motivated in how to perform, how to dive into nutrition and stretching, everything a good runner needs to do. He's learning what it means to be a complete runner."

Also scoring at New Albany were juniors Kaleb Wilson (19th, 18:40.2), Jason Pinkston (66th, 20:56) and Daylon Tobin Blackwell (75th, 21:13.1) and senior Darnell Johnson (79th, 21:21.1).

"We didn't have any time goals. We just wanted to go out there and run," Gay said, acknowledging that he and the team treated the Pickerington Classic on Aug. 24 at Pickerington North as more of a barometer for the season, considering that North will be host to the regional meet for the 16th consecutive year. "(Until the season starts), it seems like there's a little bit of a lull with all the practices, but now they take a look at themselves and focus in on what they are supposed to be doing."

Other expected contributors include seniors Rafael Soler and Jacob Williams and juniors Kahari Davis, Eli Jackson and David Neal.

In the 18-team Panther Division of the Pickerington Classic, Haji was 14th (17:21.9) to lead Groveport to 416 points and 16th place behind the host and champion Panthers (59).

Senior Brianna Chan leads a young girls team that also includes junior Crystal Russell and freshmen Alexiz Golden, Agi Jobe, Nijah Montgomery and Grace White.

Chan was 47th (24:08.4) at New Albany as the Cruisers finished last of 10 teams (210) behind champion Bexley (21).

She was followed by Golden (77th, 26:00.2), White (84th, 26:41.2), Jobe (103rd, 29:02.6) and Russell (113th, 30:01.4).

Groveport finished 21st (555) of 25 teams in the Pickerington Classic's Bengal Division as New Albany won (79).

"It's all about learning at this point -- learning how to run a (3.1-mile race), learning how to train properly," Gay said. "This season will be a good eye-opening experience."

Girls tennis coach seeing progress

Although the girls tennis team entered the week without having won a court in five matches this season, coach Shawn Wilson said he has seen incremental progress from a young roster.

Groveport was 0-5 overall and 0-2 in the OCC-Capital before playing Newark on Sept. 3.

Three of Wilson's players are in their first season of competitive tennis.

"They've been getting better each week. The progression is getting there," Wilson said. "Serves are getting better and backhands are a lot better, especially for the new girls. That had been their weak spot, but they've shown big improvement. They are tightening up on the basics. With some of the girls, I had to start with grip and stance and progress from there."

The Cruisers opened Aug. 9 with a 5-0 loss to Zanesville and lost by the same score to Grove City on Aug. 12 and Lancaster on Aug. 20. They fell 4-0 to visiting Canal Winchester in their OCC-Capital opener Aug. 27 in a match shortened by bad weather and lost 5-0 at defending league champion New Albany on Aug. 29.

Although the team outcome had been decided, Groveport's second doubles team of Alayna Burholt and Mama Bintou Tunkara was in a third-set tiebreaker against Canal Winchester's Layla Fox and Lauren Snider when heavy rain hit.

Cassie Salva has been a fixture at first singles, with Precious Anumbondem at second doubles and Jillian Caldwell at third singles. Kristy Recob and Marie Sungu are at first doubles.

"Cassie has really stood out. Our league is good so she has seen some tough players," Wilson said. "I see her maybe winning a few matches in the league and a few in the postseason before it's all said and done."

Boys golf team wrapping up OCC play

The boys golf team will participate in the fourth and final round of the OCC-Capital tournament Wednesday, Sept. 11, at Apple Valley, coming off a third round in which they had a team score for the first time this year and saw some considerable improvements.

Rounds of 117 from Riley Cartmill and Price Cooper led Groveport to a score of 491 on Aug. 28 at Turnberry. The Cruisers finished fifth behind New Albany (313), Big Walnut (316), Canal Winchester (368) and Newark (401).

Also scoring were Ricky Cooper (125) and Shephard Bray (132). Bray shot 75 on the front nine and trimmed 18 strokes off that score on his final nine holes.

"This was Riley's first real competitive match. He didn't start with us until after school started (Aug. 21) because he works, but (Aug. 28) was promising that he could be consistent in his first league match," coach Joe Rinkes said. "It's just a matter of getting these guys to be consistent and keep the ball in play and out of trouble. They tend to lose some shots when that happens. And Shephard gaining 18 strokes, you can see the improvement coming."

Groveport is 0-12 in the league, fifth behind New Albany (12-0), Big Walnut (9-3), Canal Winchester (6-6) and Newark (3-9).

Bray was Groveport's only competitor in the first round of the league tournament Aug. 6 at Denison. The Cooper brothers played the second round Aug. 12 at Darby Creek.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Schedules

Below are the coming schedules for the Groveport Madison cross country, boys golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:

CROSS COUNTRY

Sept. 7 -- McGowan Invitational at Watkins Memorial

BOYS GOLF

Sept. 11 -- OCC-Capital at Apple Valley

BOYS SOCCER

*Sept. 10 -- At Franklin Heights

GIRLS SOCCER

Sept. 9 -- Home vs. Hamilton Township

*Sept. 10 -- Home vs. Franklin Heights

GIRLS TENNIS

*Sept. 5 -- At Big Walnut

GIRLS VOLLEYBALL

*Sept. 5 -- Home vs. Canal Winchester

*Sept. 10 -- At New Albany

*League contest