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Youngster Elliot is ready to go distance for the Comets

Standing a little over 5 feet tall and barely weighing 100 pounds, Josh Elliot could easily pass for someone much younger.

He looks no more menacing than a puppy, but don't be fooled: Elliott could soon become the top dog of Crater High distance running.

That is, unless his older brother doesn't get there first.

The Elliots, freshman Josh and sophomore Zach, are the latest prize pupils of Comets distance coach Justin Loftus, who has steadily turned Crater into a running power.

The younger Elliot shattered Isaac Stoutenburgh's 3,000-meter freshman school record Saturday at the Stanford Invitational. Josh Elliot stormed from behind to win his heat in 9 minutes, 3.91 seconds to easily break Stoutenburgh's freshman mark of 9:21.

"I knew he had it in him, but I didn't know he would run this fast this soon," Loftus says. "The scary thing is, I think this might be the tip of the iceberg. I think there's more to come."

Zach Elliot is no slouch, either. After taking 11th at the state cross country meet last fall, he clocked 9:09 over 3,000 meters at an indoor meet in January. Loftus believes that Zach Elliot could soon break Crater's sophomore 3,000 record of 8:54.17, held jointly by senior Jake Keyser and Stoutenburgh, who is now a freshman at Oregon.

Josh Elliot showed the poise of a much older runner at the Stanford Invite. He kept contact with the lead pack of runners but didn't go out too quickly, covering the first half-mile in a modest 2:24. But then he turned on the afterburners, charging from seventh place with 600 meters left to win.

The younger Elliot's time was 19th best overall — counting the faster heat — in a field of several dozen.

"It's going to be interesting to see how he responds in a faster race," Loftus says. "He's still very inexperienced, but both he and Zach have incredible drive. They're hard workers in practice and good students in the classroom. They remind me a lot of Isaac (Stoutenburgh) and Jake (Keyser)."

Although Loftus no longer has Stoutenburgh, who established school records in the 1,500 and 3,000, the Comets' distance crew is stronger than ever.

Juniors Ryan Santana and Curtis Yungen were fifth and 15th, respectively, at the state cross country meet. Another junior, Jerrod Puckett, was 25th.

Junior Wyatt Rice-Narusch, who moved to Central Point from New York last year, and sophomore James Croft are also very capable runners.

"The toughest thing for me will be figuring out who's going to run in what races at the end of the season," Loftus says. "It's a problem I'm sure a lot of coaches would like to have."

Loftus, now in his sixth year as the Comets' head cross country and track distance coach, is developing a reputation as one of the top running minds in the state. He has a knack for working his athletes hard but allowing them to have some fun in the process. At 35, he can still keep up with all but Keyser during the team's road runs.

As Stoutenburgh and Keyser came up through the ranks, Loftus began modifying his coaching methods. Most significantly, he began to lend more structure to summer workouts. And then, when cross country season ended in November, he had his runners jump right into winter track workouts.

"In the summer months, we used to just get out and run," Loftus says. "But now we're doing what we call lactic threshold runs."

Which is another way of saying the Comets are training harder in the off-season. They'll go out in a pack and cover 5 or 6 miles at a 6-minute-mile pace at least twice a week.

"It's definitely helped — we won the state cross country title last fall," Loftus says. "We'll never again train during the summer without a purpose."

And now, with a truckload of good runners, the competition has grown in practice.

"When you see one of your buddies running 50 or 60 miles a week in the off-season, it's a motivator," Loftus says. "These guys are feeding off each other. It's healthy competition."

Loftus is also not shy about entering his best runners in big meets. On Saturday, Keyser will enter a loaded mile field at a meet east of Los Angeles.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com