It may have seemed a bit odd that Windsor Central coach Mike Potenza approached Josh Stone with some thoughts about the cross country season in March after the winter season had ended and just before the spring season had begun.
The then junior, having already established himself as one of the better distance runners in the state, was very receptive, though, when Potenza suggested that the team move from a Class C schedule to a Class B schedule for the upcoming fall season. Potenza's logic - the move, while possibly hindering Stone's personal development, would be of huge benefit to the team. Class C was chock full of strong teams and the chances of reaching the States, particularly with such a young team, were not great.
Editor's Note: Teams in some Sections are able to "opt up" to a higher classification than their enrollment would suggest, but not allowed to "opt down."
However, the move up in class against lesser team competition would, in theory, be a great learning situation for Windsor Central, particularly if they reached the state tournament [which they did not, falling short in the Sectionals]. The catch - Stone, who most likely would have been the favorite for the Class C State crown [he finished fifth a year ago], would have to go up against Pittsford-Mendon's Sam Lawler, arguably the best runner in the state.
"I remember that day [he told me]," Stone said. "It was early in the track season and we hadn't run a single meet yet. He realized that the move was the right move before anyone had their mind on cross country. That tells you what kind of guy coach is. He asked me about it, told me it was better for the team and the program.
"We didn't end up winning as a team but it gave us a shot. This is what was good for this team and for the future. We need guys who know how to go to a state meet and what it takes. So when he proposed that, I kind of liked to the idea to be in the higher class."
While the move didn't work out from a team standpoint it certainly benefitted Stone, who has had a marvelous season, one that will continue on Dec. 7 when he runs in the NXN Cross Country Finals in Oregon. Stone finished seventh in the Nov. 30 Regional qualifier at Bowdoin Park, running the 5,000-meter course in 16:18.1.
That race came two weeks after the State Meet and as expected, Stone battled Lawler in that meet. He took second with a personal-best 14:32.3 on the 4,500 meter course with Lawler [14:26.1] edging him out for the win.
Stone credits the move up to Class B as a big reason for his success this season, a stretch that saw him win five times, including in the Section IV championships.
"Class C definitely wouldn't have prepared me for Regionals as much as Class B did," said Stone, who committed to SUNY-Binghamton last month. "I'm glad I was in B. If I was in Class C and went to States, it would have been a three- or four-man race at the beginning and then maybe a two-man race. Class B people were there in a pack until a mile and a quarter and it was the same thing at Regionals.
"The one kid from FM [Peyton Geehrer] did run away with it at Regionals but I had gotten used to pack running. I wouldn't want to say that the State meet my senior year was a learning experience but it almost was for me. All season I was running away from the field and didn't have to hang on to anyone. I never had to run with anyone next to me until the State meet."
Geehrer [15:47.1] did indeed run away with the Regional victory and Lawler [15:55.4] did finish second so Stone will have a crack at both again in the finals. It will cap a big senior year for Stone who made a big leap after what was a solid junior season.
Moving up to Class B played a role in Stone's big year but it wasn't the only reason he succeeded. Both he and his coach point to the fact that he had more poise and experience, particularly in the bigger races, and that made a great deal of difference. That he also committed to Binghamton during the Sectionals took some pressure off in subsequent meets.
"I placed 35th in the State meet as a sophomore so last year I came in ranked second or third and I had no idea what to expect," Stone said. "This year I came in ranked fourth and I knew what I had to do. I knew the bigger races were more of a challenge and mentally I was prepared more than anything else. Last year, all year, I thought I was better than I was. I went into Sectionals as the No. 1 seed and wound up losing to [Watkins Glen's] Gabe Planty, who was the defending champ.
"I definitely relaxed a bit more this year and I took the invitational and other [smaller] races for fun. I was still trying to go as fast as I could but I was having more fun with it. Once I was in the bigger meets, I was never the favorite so I was not feeling a ton of pressure."
That said, Stone won't be under much pressure at the NXN finals. Sure, he'll be looking to win just like everyone else, but he's also realistic. He believes the race will be a big learning experience for him as he prepares to run in college.
"I've never run with that many talented athletes," said Stone, who plans on studying mechanical engineering. "It will be a fun experience but I want it to be a learning experience. I get to run with 200 of the best guys in the nation where you have people next to you the entire race. I'm not 100 percent sure how I can do but I'll give it my all. I don't see any reason to not go up there and give it my all."
Stone admits the Regional race wasn't his strongest, pointing out that he got to the mile mark and "after that became almost just survive". He said his legs weren't there and that was the first time this season that happened.
"If you look at the pictures you can really tell I'm dying," he said. "I qualified, though, and I get to run another week."
He added that he wants to stick with Lawler again, perhaps even beat him, and prove that his effort at the State meet wasn't "the fluke that some people think it was".
"You're not going to find a better kid," Potenza said. "He's been the captain for the last three years, he's coachable and all the kids look up to him. He's the ultimate character guy. I'm very happy to see his success; he's come a long way.
"The thought of going up to B was not in Josh's best interest but he was on board because of the type of kid he is. I don't know how many kids would give up their own state championship so the team could make the states."