A sport like no other

Cross country at KRHS

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  • The Kittatinny Boys Cross Country Team forms a strong pack during an intense track workout. Photos by laurie Gordon

  • Junior Captain, Ali Schutte, recovers after an interval.

  • Sophomore Emily Ward feels the work she puts in at practice.

  • The Kittatinny Regional High School Cross Country Team.

By Laurie Gordon

— Through the heat and humidity of July and August to the cooler breezes of September and October (with, perhaps, an Indian Summer heat wave thrown in) to the cold that hits come November... they run. They aren't on the roads: they're in the woods, traversing grassy fields and surmounting Sussex County's many hills. They are the Kittatinny High School Cross Country Team and they're doing one of the toughest — though often forgotten — sports out there

Kittatinny runner Ali Schutte said she went out for the team her freshman year on a whim. “I never planned to be anything that good,” she said, but her work ethic and determination has elevated her to not only being the fastest girl on the team but to being a captain as a junior.

As to how the sport is viewed at the school, she said, “A lot of kids are scared by the sport because it takes a lot of work. Others think we don't work hard because our practices are shorter than other sports. They don't understand the effort of a hard track workout or hill repeats. Practices are shorter because we don't have to go over plays, but we put in a lot of hard work.”

Liam Nelms, a senior and co-captain of boys team, started running prior to high school under the tutelage of local running guru Bruce Wask.

“He convinced me that my strong suit was distance running rather than sprints, so running cross country was a natural progression,” Nelms said. “I can't thank him enough for steering me to cross country.” He added, “Many kids I know don't want to do cross country because it's hard. I wish they'd realize it can help them with their other sports and it is a difficult sport but you get a lot of benefit from the work.”

Runners learn to stick with their competition and how to push back against that final limiting factor: psychology. The sense of achievement and the satisfaction these runners gain from having strained sinews and limbs to the limit extrapolates into life in general, goal setting and pushing through to achieve in cross country and in all that they do.

Junior, Jack Sweatt, is the perfect example. “I don't function well when I don't run. It's great for your body but also your mind.”

Sweatt started doing cross country in seventh grade after a conversation with his dad about choosing running or lacrosse.

“He thought running would be a better choice for me,” Sweatt said.

That ended up being very true as Sweatt quickly developed a strong passion for the sport. At Kittatinny, the junior high is connected to the high school, so for two years, he had plenty of opportunity to both run, himself, for the junior high team and observe high school cross country practices.

Sweatt was recently deputized as the boys' team's second co-captain and said, “Others at the school view the sport as being hard and I feel they often don't know about the benefits. It gets you in shape for any other sport you do and it's so satisfying when you complete a hard workout or do well in a race.”

In cross country, runners have to jump over obstacles they encounter on the course, run up hills and constantly balance themselves over varying terrain so they don't fall. Sometimes they pick up a lot of mud on their shoes and they feel as heavy as rocks. The sport builds an enormous amount of strength, and the hills and mud develop power and resilience in their legs while the uneven ground strengthens their feet and ankles. Off road racing is much more difficult than running on the roads and develops a powerhouse cardiovascular system. Aside from the physical, cross country develops determination and “stickability.”

For Danielle Tooker, a teacher at Kittatinny Regional High School, having coached the middle school team for 14 years has been a labor of love. “I just love running and think it's so good for the kids. It keeps them in shape and all kids can participate, even those who have special needs.” Tooker has three grown daughters who went through Kittatinny and its running programs and all of them did track and field in college at NCAA Division II schools. “The sport used to get some publicity, but now it's rare to see results. It's a difficult sport that deserves notoriety,” she added. Above all, Tooker said, “Running isn't just something you do in middle school or high school: it's a lifelong sport.”

“It's ridiculous how under publicized cross country is,” said junior John Desordi. He started running as a pact with Sweatt. “I said I'd join cross country if he joined the debate team,” Desordi said. And so the pact was created. “Now I can't imagine not running,” said Desordi. “It's a great sport and keeps me in shape for others I love including baseball and golf.”

Underrated, misunderstood and often found lurking in the shadow of other sports, cross country at Kittainny is building a name for itself as its runners continue to work in practice and thrive in the meets and invitationals. The runners have turned in some impressive times and places including the girls placing 6th and the boys 7th at the prestigious Roxbury Invitational. Sweat, Nelms and Jake Shackelton led the boys and Shutte and Emily Ward were the stand outs for the girls squad. Freshman, Ashly Espinosa placed 6th overall in the meet's freshman race showing great promise for the future and sophomore Tyler Latincsics turned in his first sub 20 minute 5K. The lady Cougars beat Wallkill Valley in their opening tri meet and the boys topped Sussex Tech.

To the student body, Schutte said, “Come out and watch us. Just walk over to “The Pit” (the fields adjacent to the school) and watch a meet. We'd love the support.” The next home meet is on Tuesday, October 3rd. Between now and then, the Cougars will be on the road tearing it up at a big invitational and several tri-meets.

An interesting side bar to cross country runners at Kittatinny is that they're smart and they set lofty goals. Desordi plans to become a lawyer and then... the governor of the state of New Jersey. It's not a whim, it's his firm plan and one his teachers, such as Sam Lasso, firmly believe he can achieve. Nelms has applied to several colleges but has his sights set on getting into Clemson where he will major in Information Technogy (IT). From there, he plans to either become a system manager or the CEO of a company.

“It's about changing the mentality toward the sport and creating a running culture here at the school,” said Assistant Varsity Coach, Maria Vezos. “These kids put in so much effort and deserve a spotlight.”

Those who denigrate cross country more than likely have never actually tried it. Running is something kids in other sports dread: it's the punishment dished out by the coach at the conclusion of a sub-par practice. In cross country, that’s all practice is: running. There’s no variation, no drill rotation, no water breaks, no focus on fine-tuning skills, no halftime and no sidelines. You just run until it hurts, then you run some more. It isn’t as easy as Forrest Gump made it look.

“Cross country is definitely a sport like no other,” Shutte said, “And I'm proud to call it my sport.”

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