McAlester tennis coach Chad Waller is no stranger to running. As a collegiate tennis player at East Central University in Ada, he said he frequently ran multiple miles with the team, and he’s participated in a few 5K races as well.

Waller never ran on a cross country team, however. And taking over as McAlester’s cross country coach this season, Waller said he’s gained an appreciation for the sport.

“Their sport is what other sports’ punishment is,” Waller said Tuesday.

“These are a rare group of kids. They push their bodies to the limit every day, day in and day out.”

Waller said he’s taken many of his cross country cues from Steve Sawyer, ECU’s current cross country coach and Waller’s suitemate while both were at ECU. The Buffs have alternated between two harder runs and three slower recovery runs each week.

Waller said his tennis players have even done some of the conditioning with the cross country team. Tuesday’s cross country practice began at the Bob Brumley Gymnasium tennis courts, with Waller giving his runners the day’s route, then turning around and coaching the tennis squad after the runners took off.

“That’s what our whole workout’s based on, is to see improvement throughout the whole season,” Waller said.

“My whole program is to hopefully peak toward Regionals.”

Waller said he has 17 cross country runners this year, including three girls. The 2013 squad had fewer numbers and only boys.

“It’s been a long time since any cross country runner has even been to State in McAlester,” Waller said.

“These kids work so hard, I’d love to get a few of them to State. Ultimately the goal is maybe the whole team.”

Sam Adams is the only senior on the cross country team, making him the clear choice for captain of the coed squad. Adams both plays football and runs cross country every fall, often practicing with both teams on the same day.

“He’s the leader,” Waller said of Adams.

“He’s totally bought into my system, too. He gives it everything he has. I’ve had to slow him down, because he runs a little bit too hard on some of these off-days.”

Parker Elliot, a sophomore, is another Buff with endurance. His running history includes several half-marathons, a full 26.2-mile marathon and multiple 50Ks.

“He’s fit, and he has a lot of endurance,” Waller said of Elliot. “I’d really like to see him improve his time on these little 5Ks.”

The Buffs will also get an infusion of youth from a strong freshman class. Brothers Matt and Jake Rattan, Isaac Briggs and Brayden McKelvey were all part of the 2013 Jr. Buffs squad that finished third in Class 5A at the junior high state race in October.

“Matt has been second only to Sam Adams all season,” Waller said of Matt Rattan. “But do I think that he’s my second-fastest runner in the 5K? Probably not, but he’s definitely my second-hardest worker.”

Junior high races typically go one mile, and high school races go 3.2 miles for boys, two miles for girls. Waller said learning how to manage energy and not push too hard too early will be essential for his freshmen.

Cross country requires five racers to qualify as a team. The Lady Buffs have just three runners, so they’ll compete individually.

Waller said all three Lady Buffs are new to cross country. That includes Madelyn Hunter, a sophomore move-in from Melissa, Texas.

“They all show a lot of promise,” Waller said of the Lady Buffs.

“They’ve been working their tails off trying to stay up with these guys. And the girls that I have, all three of them, actually, are running better than some of the boys.”

There was some concern at the end of the 2013 season that with four eight-grade runners moving up to the high school, the junior high team would be a one-year phenomenon. Instead, junior high athletic director Justin Mullins said the Jr. Buffs will field a squad of about 10 kids.

Jamie Martin will coach the Jr. Buffs. The Jr. Buffs, Buffs and Lady Buffs will all follow the same schedule, competing in different divisions at the same locations.

Cross country season starts Thursday at Tahlequah.

Contact Matt Goisman at mgoisman@mcalesternews.com