Nearly every successful high school team has roots in a strong middle school team and youth programs. The same is true of the Clintonville Trucker cross country teams, as the middle school program is helping to produce a competitive high school squad.
“There was no cross country program at the middle school six years ago,” explained Jeff Crumbaugh, who coaches the high school cross country team and instituted the middle school team six years ago. “I realized that we needed a feeder program if we wanted the high school team to be successful.
“There was no funding for a cross country team at first, so I offered to coach for free for the first two years,” said Crumbaugh. “The school district agreed to provide funding if we could build a successful team, and that has happened.
“Cross country is very accessible from an economic standpoint,” commented Crumbaugh. “The team fundraises to cover the cost of uniforms. The only things athletes really need to buy are running shoes.”
Last year, the high school team won Sectionals and went to State. This year, two girls qualified for state. Crumbaugh said he hopes to have a State-caliber team again soon.
“It’s interesting to note that since our middle school cross country team was formed, we’ve had high school kids qualify for State each year,” said Crumbaugh. “And we never had a high school athlete make it to state when we had no middle school program.”
This year, seniors Allison Johnson and Jessica Petruzates will compete at State for the third time in their high school careers. Both Johnson and Petruzates were members of the first Clintonville Middle School cross country team.
“We had some really good athletes on that first team,” said Crumbaugh. “They had great work ethic, and they trained with the high school team.
“Our program has lots of good momentum right now,” Crumbaugh said. “There is lots of room for improvement in numbers, and we’re hoping to help athletes transition from middle school to high school without losing any of them to another activity. There are many students who are good athletes; they just need a program that helps them demonstrate their ability. Many of those kids haven’t come out for any sports yet, but they would be great runners.”
A key to increasing the program’s number of participants begins when athletes are young. That’s where middle school cross country coach Stacy Hohn comes in. With assistance from her husband Dan, Stacy says the program is coming along nicely.
“We had 18 kids in our middle school program this year. Nine girls and nine boys participated,” she said. “We’re encouraging our runners to recruit their friends and help grow the team for next year.”
This year’s team included eighth graders Evan Tennie, Sami Smejkal, and Allison Graper; seventh graders Kyle Tennie, Nathan LeNoble, Jake Yearwood, Madison Hohn, Elly Arndt, and Autumn Hohn; sixth graders Christian Jacobsen, Austin Tosdale, Ryan Sorenson, Neely Goerlinger, Alli Smejkal, and Kelli Smith; and fifth graders Jesse Wilson, Joshua Wilson, and Jasmine Wilson.
“We had a good core of athletes in fifth and sixth grade last year, and they moved up this year. Several will be moving up this next year, and we expect to have a strong team,” said Dan.
The Clintonville Middle School team is open for students in grades 5-8, while most schools only include grades 6-8. Stacy transitioned from high school cross country to middle school cross country, and says the team performed well from the first day of practice this year.
“I was very impressed with our first week of practice. The kids came into the season in great shape. They were at midseason form right off the bat,” she said. “They were at different levels, but there were no big gaps in conditioning levels.”
Middle school runners compete in races that cover 1.5 to 2 miles. Practices are geared for those distances.
“We never run more than 3.5 miles in a practice,” said Stacy. “We have a very wide variety of courses that we use in practice. Kids get bored when they’re doing the same thing every day, so we try to mix it up for them.”
The middle school team participated in 10 competitive races this year, and the team hosted the Valley Bay Conference meet on Oct. 13, the final race of the season.
“Our girls took first place, while the boys took fifth place out of seven teams,” said Stacy. “We had four girls who consistently finished in the top 10 or 15 all year long. The girls were very dominant. The boys will be stronger next year. They were a young team this year, but will be older and stronger next year.”
Dan said there are several races within each race, as runners are motivated by different achievements.
“Some kids want to medal; others want to improve their times,” he said. “Others just like to compete against each other. Each race is very complex because of the different goals of each individual runner. It’s a team sport, but it’s also an individual sport.”
“The whole idea of this team is to generate positive experiences for the kids. Everyone participates—nobody sits the bench. We try to keep everything very positive, and bad attitudes are not welcome,” said Stacy.
“Cross country is a great way for kids to get out and interact with their peers,” added Dan. “They get to experience a competitive environment, and each racer controls how competitive they want to be. When a runner comes out for cross country, they start slow and build up their strength and conditioning. Some think they have to be able to run the whole course right off the bat, but that’s not the case. You just work your way up to it.
“This sport also offers parents a chance to see their kids change and grow into competitors throughout the year,” added Dan. “They can come to a race and know that their kid will be participating. The parents really get into it because everyone is rooting for each other. The kids end up feeling really good about themselves.”
Both Stacy and Dan know that the program must continue to grow in order to have continued success.
“There can’t just be a few good runners,” sad Dan. “We need more athletes to make a whole team. It sounds like most of this year’s team will be back next year, and we’re trying to recruit more runners.”
“Cross country is open to a wide variety of athletic abilities,” added Crumbaugh. “It’s a great sport for kids who aren’t big or tall, because you don’t have to be big or tall to be competitive in this sport. Also, studies show that kids who run do better academically.”
Crumbaugh said he hopes to instill a lifelong love for the sport in athletes who come through the program.
“One of my former athletes, Jennifer Achterberg, continued to run while in college and ran competitive races after leaving college. She now teaches in Shawano and is coaching a very large cross country team. She’s come full circle and is now sharing her passion with a new generation,” Crumbaugh said. “My goal as a coach is to see kids continue to run after high school. Cross country is a lifelong sport, and I hope these kids will continue to run their whole lives.”
To learn more about the middle school cross country program, visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/clintonvillecrosscountry/.