Cross country is here for the long run

By Alex Leichenger

Five years ago, Head Coach Tim Sharpe had a quiet confidence that cross country could develop into a dynasty at Harvard-Westlake. But at the time, the reality seemed to indicate otherwise.

In Sharpe’s first stint at the school from 2003 to 2005, there were standout runners like Lindsay Flacks ’03 and Jared Bell ’05, but cross country was more a recreational sport than a competitive one.

Neither the girls’ nor boys’ team had ever been to the state meet before 2008. As Track & Field Head Coach and Cross Country Program Head Jonas Koolsbergen said, reaching the state meet was like reaching the Olympics when he was a runner at Harvard School. There simply hadn’t been a tradition of excellence established in the cross country program.

Sharpe came from a different background, and perhaps that’s what made him a dreamer at the time.

“When I was in high school I was part of a team where we were in the top 10 every year, and when you got on that program you felt a certain pressure,” Sharpe said. “But it wasn’t really pressure, there’s a pride in living up to those expectations, that tradition. And I think we’re starting to get to that point [at Harvard-Westlake] where maybe [runners] can come to the program and just feel a little pride. And the expectations now are just different.”

The boys’ team has been to the state in all three years since 2008 and the girls’ team has won a state championship. A tradition of success has been imbued in the program.

There have been growing pains, but runners have ultimately bought in to Sharpe’s plan.

“The weekly mileage has gone up significantly across the program, the summer commitment has gone up significantly across the program, and I think that as the demands and expectations have gone up, that’s proved attractive to our community,” Head of Athletics Audrius Barzdukas said.

More people than ever are signing up to run, and that means more diamonds in the rough are being unearthed, like David Manahan ’14, the boys’ fifth man at the state meet.

Sharpe said that Manahan was completely new to distance running before this summer’s August training in Big Bear. In a matter of weeks, Manahan was already showing the potential to be as dominant as Bell by the time he is a senior.

When Charlie Stigler ’11, this year’s fourth man, was in eighth grade, he could barely run two miles in less than 20 minutes. Just four years later, he was running three miles in 16:55 at state finals.

In cross country, surprise stars like Manahan and Stigler come around much more often than they do in say, basketball or baseball.

A person might play basketball every day for 15 years, but still be unable to even break into the starting lineup because he or she simply isn’t tall or quick enough. You can play baseball for 15 years and still not be able to hit an off-speed pitch.

But with running, there are really not many variables. You just run.

As Barzdukas said, “it’s the original human sport.”

Sure, not everyone can become Cami Chapus ’12 simply by working hard, but it is possible to become a solid varsity runner even without extraordinary god-given talent.

“I think that kids at Harvard-Westlake embrace work,” Barzdukas said. “And cross country is a very pure sport. It’s the sport of truth. What you put in is what you get out.”

As more and more kids accept the challenge of 70-mile weeks, the strength of the cross country program will only continue to grow.

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