The East cross country team is now not just the biggest team in the district, but with over 230 runners, the team is the largest athletic team in the state, and according to the coaches one of the largest in the nation.
The average Kansas team has about 60 to 80 runners, putting East way ahead of any other team. The team closest to matching East’s numbers is Saint Thomas Aquinas, a team with about 120 runners.. And with only 20 Varsity and JV spots available on the East squad, 190 kids all run for the C-team. Head coach Tricia Beaham has coached large teams in her 11 years at East, but never has had a team this big. She, along with assistant coaches T. Michael Chaffee and David Pennington, have felt the sharp increase in numbers.
“It is definitely challenging to coach a team of our size, but still rewarding,” Beaham said. “When you have good student-athletes on the team, they know how to be dedicated, disciplined and determined.”
Even with a massive team, the boy’s cross-country squad still hasn’t won a state championship in forty-two years and hasn’t qualified for state in the past five. The last girl’s championship was in 1999. East is still outdone in races by the smaller teams of Rockhurst and Northwest.
“Having so many of our athletes out on the course allows them to be ahead of runners from other teams that normally might finish in a higher position if we weren’t there,” Beaham said. “Having a group of runners working together allows the athletes to push one another throughout the race. On the other hand, if we are going at a slower pace it could result in a slower finishing time and ultimately not be very competitive with the field.”
Chaffee spends most of his time at practice watching his stopwatch as the varsity and JV runners spend their afternoons running multiple workouts. When he’s not timing and pushing the upper-class runners, he runs with the C-teamers and enjoys the small talk along the way.
“It is difficult just trying to learn names and faces, and that means that often we don’t have as close a relationship with all the runners as we might like to have,” Chaffee said. “At the same time, it is extremely gratifying to work with such good people who are willing to be disciplined and work so hard every day.”
Many students and team members wonder how the team became so large and why there are so many people that want to put their bodies through miles of running. Junior Burke Smith is currently on the JV cross country team and has noticed a change in the team.
“Last year, there were a lot of kids that quit early in the year,” Burke said. “I don’t like running. I run cross country because I like the sense of accomplishment after a run. A lot of other kids run for that same feeling. But some kids just want to be with friends and just use practice as a way to hang out.”
The coaches think that the reason that the number of kids has gone up so much is because of the social aspects of running on a team and the running helps condition kids that play other sports such as basketball or track.
“I think people run cross country because there are no cuts, it’s a challenge and they want to work hard and have fun with friends after school,” Chaffee said.
The team struggled in their first meet, the Greg Wilson Classic, where they finished around fifth place out of ten schools.
“I think the team just burned out way too early,” Smith said. “A lot of kids fell back early and we couldn’t recover from our bad start.”
The team then swept the competition away in the next meet, at the Topeka West Invitational. They placed first in points in every group, which was a first in East history.
“We ran as a team that race and everybody just improved from the Greg Wilson Classic,” Smith said. “We got a great start and we followed through.”
The coaches believe that East had great success because the kids stuck in large groups, started strong, and they were facing pretty average competition. East’s numbers and the weaker competition played a large part in their victory in their races; in the JV race, there were only nine non-East runners in the top 30.
“I believe that kids come out for cross country to be with friends and work towards a common goal,” Beaham said. “Perhaps they’ve been told sometime in their life that they are a good runner. It’s not just about running, but combining hard work, friendship and going after a common goal that makes it satisfying.”
But, of course, there are disadvantages. With 230 kids and three coaches it is difficult to coach athletes individually. Some kids have rarely been able to speak to the coaches.
“We can’t watch every runner individually all of the time,” Beaham said. “It’s impossible with just three coaches. We are not a high risk sport, but it would be nice if we could work with runner individually.”
The coaches have had large East teams before and they have created team workouts where the coaches can try and focus on most individuals, such as the teams’ hill and track workouts.
“It’s frustrating at times, especially when Coach Beaham is trying to convey something important when two hundred people want to be talking to each other,” Chaffee said. “I mostly just yell into the abyss, but Coach Beaham and Coach Pennington are very knowledgeable in most aspects of running and are able to teach them when we get the kids in small groups.”
The coaches are just excited that this many kids what to better themselves through this sport. Winning is not as important as the lessons learned through the sport.
“I try to remind the kids to keep it simple, and don’t forget the reason why they are out here,” Beaham said. “They need to remember the purity of running and to embrace challenge. That’s what life is about. Hopefully, most of the kids will leave high school and still have running be a part of their everyday life. You can’t say that about too many sports.”