By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
KALAMAZOO — Finding a face in a crowd of 357 runners erupting down a hillside all at once could be a daunting task.
But spotting sophomore Joe Meyers is easy, said Greg Savicke.
“He’ll be one of the ones out front,” the Kalamazoo Loy Norrix coach predicted.
That was true at Friday’s Portage Central Early Bird Invitational, where Meyers finished 14th with a time of 17 minutes, 12 seconds.
That sounds like a great time for a first race of the season, but Meyers was not celebrating.
“I had a pretty bad race,” he said. “I was training in Colorado for like a month with my new coach, and I put in a lot of training.
“I should have been well in the 16s. It was just not a good race.”
He didn’t have much time to fret.
The two-sport athlete had his first tennis match of the season Monday.
He’s playing No. 2 singles for the Knights after putting together a 21-5 record at the same flight last year.
Juggling two fall sports is not a problem for the amiable Meyers, with tennis taking priority.
“We work around the tennis schedule,” said Savicke, in his 29th year as Norrix’s head cross country coach. “We get Joe when he’s available. Early in the season it’s not so much, but down the stretch, yes.
“That’s the championship part of our season for us, in October, so we get him for the most important meets coming up.”
Both sports are in Meyers’ DNA.
His mother, Jody, got him on the tennis court when he was 5 and just playing for fun.
“Then I quit and mainly played hockey for years until seventh grade, then picked up tennis again,” he said.
He started running with his father, John, at age 9.
As a freshman, “I didn’t really want to pick one because I knew I could do pretty good in both,” Joe Meyers said. “It worked out last year.”
Both are individual sports, but in running, “you have to definitely have a lot more drive to go out and run by yourself because you can have a lot of excuses not to,” he said.
“In tennis, you go to group and you have to try as hard as you can. I don’t really get as tired in matches (since I’ve been) running.”
Meyers works out with sophomore Reed Crocker, Norrix’s No. 1 singles player.
Crocker qualified for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals last season, losing his top-flight title match, 7-6(6), 3-6, 7-6(8), to top-seeded Varun Shanker of Midland Dow.
The only way Meyers will make it to the Finals is if Loy Norrix as a team qualifies, since the No. 1 player is the only individual eligible if the team falls short at Regionals. The No. 1 singles champion and runner-up at Regionals advance to Finals play even if their teams do not qualify.
“We have a better chance (as a team) this year,” Crocker said. “The team’s looking better.
“We’ve been doing a lot of sprints, a lot. (Sunday) was an easy day. We only ran a mile” before practice.
Crocker said Meyers pushes him to be better.
“Joe is like the marathon runner, so it helps me with conditioning and it helps me on the court because I know he can help build the wins,” Crocker said.
“We hit together, and he pushes me get better. I’ve had the joy to hit with him the last year or so because he joined my coach (Bill Jenkins, who is also Norrix’s head coach).”
Jenkins, in his third season with the Knights, has coached tennis for 38 years.
Meyers possesses a “good work ethic, and genetics are very much in his favor as far as a force in track,” Jenkins said. “He’s built for it in tennis as well.
“He’s also extremely coachable so he has a very good perspective, very good mindset and disposition for tennis. He’s extremely intense, extremely passionate and competitive, but he’s also very level-headed, so he’s able to channel a lot of that energy into proper use.”
Jenkins said, in his experience, it is unusual to have an athlete be so successful in two sports in the same season.
“He’s got very set dreams but he works at them on a daily basis, knowing that the only way to achieve them is through his commitment,” the coach said.
“Regardless of whatever natural distractions may come up, he seems to stay on track very diligently and is years ahead of his time.”
While Meyers needs the team to qualify for the MHSAA Finals in tennis, he has a much better shot of earning a berth in cross country.
Last year, then-senior Gabe Runyon was the only Norrix runner to qualify for the Lower Peninsula Division 1 competition at Michigan International Speedway.
Meyers just missed qualifying, finishing 21st at his Regional with a time of 17:04. The top 15 runners moved on.
Savicke lost Runyon and four of his other top seven runners to graduation this spring, noting that Meyers has moved up from second in the order to become the team’s top runner.
Meyers has improved on his 2016 Regional time and has an unofficial personal best of 16:30. He has hit 17:00 in a race, and his short-term goal is to get into the 16s during competition.
Said Savicke: “Joe’s father was a runner in high school for (Kalamazoo) Hackett in the 1980s, and he’s really active in bicycling and running events. He’s brought Joe along with him.
“I think that just paid dividends with his running abilities. I saw Joe in middle school, so I knew he would be a good fit for us.”
Norrix’s next cross country meet is Thursday with Meyers leading a varsity contingent of junior Will Carrier, senior Zach Skinner, sophomore Myles Baker, junior Rowan Mathieson, senior Garrett Bloom and sophomore Erick Ponce.
Once the fall season is over, Meyers does not plan to leave sports behind.
He bicycles and was the Michigan Bicycle Racing Association road race junior state and point series champ a year ago and “might pick up hockey or swimming this year,” he said.
In the spring, he is part of the varsity track & field team, competing in the 1,600, 3,200 and 3,200 relay.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Loy Norrix sophomore Joe Meyers returns a volley during a tennis practice Sunday. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Meyers, tennis teammate Reed Crocker, Knights’ boys tennis coach Bill Jenkins, Knights’ boys cross country coach Greg Savicke. (Below) Meyers pushes ahead of a pack during Friday’s Early Bird race at Portage Central. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)