By Alec McNab

There is a Whanganui connection with the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships to be held in Hawera in September. Former Whanganui middle distance runner Jason Cressingham has a major role in the local organising committee.

Last Thursday in wet and cold weather, I travelled to Hawera with senior New Zealand Schools executive member John Tylden (Ohope) and Collegiate Cross Country Team manager Gil Barnitt to inspect the proposed New Zealand Schools Championship course at the A&P Showgrounds in Hawera.

We were met by Cressingham and Richard Brewer, past president of the Egmont A&P Showgrounds. Cressingham, who along with Ed Fern is doing an impressive job with the Hawera High School track and field and cross country teams, attended Whanganui City College and, in their colours, was placed 10th in the NZ Schools junior grade in Napier in 1997 and 7th in the senior grade three years later in Christchurch.

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The A&P Showgrounds has long been the venue for the Hughes Memorial Cross Country and has been a popular venue for many cross country events at schools and club races. Leading New Zealand middle distance runner Matt Baxter, a former NCAA cross country silver medallist, rated the Hawera course his favourite in a recent Athletics New Zealand interview.

Baxter, as a Taranaki man, might be a little biased but he has run on many courses both in New Zealand and in the United States.

"It has always been a measurement of my improvement. It was a true cross country course, rugged underfoot with farmland fences to jump over. It can get boggy in places and the course finishes on an oval dog track which feels a little bit like finishing on a track. I've had too many good experiences there, I loved it".

Baxter went on to say that tough races he experienced at the A&P Showgrounds undoubtedly set him up for his future cross country success. Baxter also led his Northern Arizona team to an NCAA team title; a team that also had former Whanganui Collegiate New Zealand Schools Cross Country winner Geordie Beamish on the roster.

Cressingham also clearly loved the course on which, as an under-18 athlete, he won an Athletics New Zealand title.

He and Brewer took us right around the course (thankfully on a four-wheel-drive vehicle). The course has much to recommend it. It is on the edge of town with excellent infrastructure including the grassed dog track oval and grandstand at the finish. It is one of the more demanding courses of recent years including undulating country and a steeper climb known as Hospital Hill.

New Zealand athletes can look forward to an exciting challenge in September.

The Whanganui High School Cross Country. held on Tuesday at Springvale Park. was on a very different course. Organisers did well and made good use of all small undulations and turns and included a set of hurdles at an otherwise flat venue.

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Although the course was very different from Hawera, the cold, wet conditions were like those we faced inspecting the Hawera course and added a challenge to all competitors.

The senior winners were Nat Kirk and Charlotte Baker. Baker followed in the footsteps of her older sister Rebecca, last year's senior girls winner who went on to her third top 10 New Zealand Schools place and her second New Zealand singlet. New Zealand Schools hurdle champion Maggie Jones was second with Renee Teers in third place.

Eventual senior girls winner Charlotte Baker (red singlet) is flanked by runner-up Maggie Jones (right) and Renee Teers (left) in the annual Whanganui High School cross country.
Eventual senior girls winner Charlotte Baker (red singlet) is flanked by runner-up Maggie Jones (right) and Renee Teers (left) in the annual Whanganui High School cross country.

The senior boys settled for an easy pace over the first two of the three laps. As in the Whanganui Collegiate Championships senior girls' race six days earlier (won by 400 metre runner Emma Osborne) the relatively easy pace suited the faster track runners so it was no surprise that Kirk, who was fifth as a Year 9 athlete at NZ Schools in 2018 and won the New Zealand Schools junior 300 metre hurdles in December, won the sprint for home, with Blair Gowan a worthy second and Flynn Johnston in third.

Teressa Rennie won the Year 9 race from Estelle Murray and sister Carrie in third. They will form a formidable team for the Whanganui Schools Championships on August 17 for what could be a great team battle with the strong Nga Tawa and Collegiate combinations. Thomas Gowan impressed in the Year 9 boys winning from Damian Hodgson and Alistair Cameron.

Chardonnay Ross-Elvin took the junior girls (under 16) title from Rebekah Bayler and Macy Dobbie, while the junior boys' race was taken out by Chase Morpeth from Levi Hoekstra and Cade Knight.

Athletes have over 11 weeks to prepare for New Zealand Secondary Schools with Whanganui Schools on August 17 providing an excellent preparatory competition

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