Kasey Knevelbaard is a Central Section champion, the region’s finest small schools runner in history, a state record-breaker and silver medalist … and more.
“He’s the reason we started cross country,” says Ryan Wood, superintendent of Immanuel Schools.
That’s only a slight exaggeration.
Technically, Knevelbaard — The Bee’s boys Runner of the Year — is the reason Immanuel High restarted the sport in his sophomore year of 2012.
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The private school of 280 students in Reedley hadn’t participated in cross country for nearly 20 years.
He had transferred to Immanuel from the Caruthers Unified School District the year before.
“At the time,” Wood says, “he kind of took a chance because we didn’t have a cross country team.”
But the dots quickly connected.
Knevelbaard’s parents, Mike and Kristi (formerly Leonard), were Immanuel graduates.
“So we kind of knew who Kasey was,” Wood says.
But the real glue to the connection: Dave Lehrman.
Prior to Knevelbaard’s arrival, Lehrman was the most accomplished distance runner in Immanuel history, as a section 3,200-meter champion in track and field in 1980.
Further, Lehrman’s daughter, Anna, was an Immanuel junior when Knevelbaard was a freshman.
And, in addition, Knevelbaard — training with Kingsburg High because Immanuel didn’t have a program — caught the eye of Lehrman, a local agriculture real estate appraiser.
“I saw him run and had a few words with him,” says Lehrman, Immanuel’s only section distance running champion in track and field — boys or girls — in school history. “He had so much talent and passion for running. At that point, I went to my boss and asked if I could work it out, with my schedule, to coach. I then went to Immanuel and Kasey’s parents, and they were 100% behind it. And it all worked out.”
Three years later, says Lehrman — also a former two-time Fresno State Most Valuable Runner in cross country: “I’ve never been around a high school runner with just natural God-given talent as Kasey has. He’s unbelievably talented and versatile. I sit there in awe with the stopwatch and see what he can do. He’s also a thinker, a complete track historian. You can coach a lifetime and never come close to having a kid with Kasey’s talent level. I hope I haven’t shortchanged him with my limited coaching background.”
Knevelbaard assures not: “A fantastic coach who’s all about making team and individuals better.”
Says Wood: “Dave’s been a great fit for Kasey to push him and fulfill his potential.”
Knevelbaard is The Bee’s Runner of the Year for many reasons, but mainly three — the number of times he defeated Madera South junior Eduardo Herrera in head-to-head competition.
Herrera, The Bee’s Runner of the Year in 2013, recorded the best time (15 minutes, 7 seconds) among section boys in the 2014 season at Woodward Park — the state’s official, 3.1-mile course. He repeated his section Division I title and placed fourth in the state.
But he was beaten by Knevelbaard at the Woodbridge (Irvine), Clovis and Clovis North invitationals.
And, yes, Knevelbaard — the section’s D-V champion who chose to compete in the elite divisions at those invitationals — was keen to Herrera’s presence at each venue: “He’s obviously a great, great runner, a stud. Obviously, I wanted to run with him and beat him.”
Knevelbaard wanted to beat them all, actually, and to heck with the fact he was representing a D-V school, one of the section’s smallest.
“I never set boundaries,” he says. “I never wanted to limit myself to be the best D-V runner. I wanted to see what my true potential.”
Knevelbaard’s 15:09 to win the Central Sequoia League gold set a state record for a D-V runner at Woodward. But it stood for only two weeks as Marin Academy-San Rafael’s torched a 14:59 to capture the state D-V gold.
Knevelbaard felt fit to also run a sub-15:00 that late November day, but he fought cramps and finished second at 15:19.
The 5-foot-9, 127-pounder, who figures to compete for a 1,600-meter gold in the single-division CIF State Track and Field Championships at Buchanan’s Veterans Memorial Stadium in June, hasn’t made a college decision. He’s made an official visit to Northern Arizona and plans on visiting Portland soon.
“I’ve wanted to prove that on any given day I could be the fastest guy in the Valley, no matter who I was running against,” he says. “That was my mindset. You can’t be defeated before you step on the line.”