LOWELL | Having an understudy is great if you're a Broadway actor or play in a symphony orchestra.
But while running high school cross country, wow, that's a bonus for the entire program.
Lowell senior Brian Blaylock finished 62nd at last year's state meet in 16:22.7 and is the highest returning Lake County runner this season.
Former teammate Kyle Eller, now running for the Air Force Academy, was fifth at that same meet and coach Jake Rakoczy views Blaylock as Eller's understudy.
"Just as far as learning how to run and race," Rakoczy added. "You can't think that whoever practices hard and runs the most miles is the fastest. There's a lot of strategy that goes into it.
"When you have that running mate to help do the work with, it's different than going up front by yourself."
Blaylock caught on quickly, it turns out.
"I want hopefully to be 30 seconds faster than last year," he said. "Maybe break 15:40 at the state meet. That would be nice.
"Kyle helped me a lot with just about everything — stride, form, speed workouts. He definitely wanted me to be up there with him. He'd be perfectly OK if I beat him. Then he'd train harder and beat me."
Blaylock said he's "pretty decent" on all surfaces and enters today's challenging New Prairie Invite undefeated in dual and triangular meets.
He was second at the Bob Thomas Invitational with a personal best 15:50, second at the Purdue University Invitational and third at the Crown Point Invitational.
"He had a breakout sophomore (track) season and ended up breaking 10 minutes (9:39). We knew we had something special there," Rakoczy said.
Blaylock's trump card is his kick down the stretch.
"He's a finisher, man. If you're close to him with 800 (feet) to go, you'd better be ready to run fast," Rakoczy said. "He's got a great last half-mile if he needs to."
Lowell placed 16th at state, its first appearance at the big show, and Blaylock is shooting for a top 25 individual finish if fortunate enough to return.
"I really love running," he said. "It's kind of a stress reliever. Sometimes, you run and don't think about anything. It's awesome."
Blaylock's personal track bests include 4:32 in the 1,600 and 2:02 for the 800 meters.
"At the end of the day, it's just running," said Rakoczy, who takes a pressure-free approach. "It's fun to run fast and not get too nervous about it. It's a unique sport. There's no plays to remember. There's no ball to mishandle.
"You just go out and run and if you have a bad day, there's always another race. I downplay the whole pressure thing. I just tell our guys 'go out there and give 'em heck.'"