OFF THE CUFF

This week marks the resurrection of the sport of cross country racing in Houston.

When members of the Houston High School boys and girls squads head out on the 3.1-mile course in a meet Thursday at Willow Springs, they’ll be the first “harriers” to represent the Tigers in a race since the mid-1980s.

While the people paying attention to the event will be limited mostly to parents, relatives, friends and the team members themselves, I’m actually very interested and pretty excited about the situation.

You see, while working for more than seven years as a sports editor at a weekly newspaper in Cleveland, Ga. (in the Northeast Georgia mountains), I became a big fan of cross country. Before holding the position, I basically knew nothing about the sport. But as the years went by, I grew increasingly aware of how cool it is and eventually realized I enjoyed the heck out of being around it.

It didn’t hurt the White County High School had a very strong cross country program, with both the boys and girls teams securing league championships on multiple occasions and individual runners posting high finishes at state meets and other giant events. But my fondness of the sport wasn’t born so much from White County’s success as much as it was the recognition of all of its fascinating and admirable characteristics.

So now that Houston harriers (that’s the nickname for a cross country runner) are back in uniform and will compete on a regular basis, I feel led to explain a little about how the sport works, in hopes of creating interest among members of the community – especially kids who might be drawn to giving it a shot. 

While there are no hand-offs, bounce passes, double plays or other team-oriented situations familiar to most sports fans, cross country is definitely a team sport. Scoring is simple: The first five runners to finish for a given team score points based on where they finish, and the team with the lowest score wins. In other words, a first-place finisher in a race scores one point while the 22nd place finisher scores 22, and so on.

That means every placement by every one of those five finishers is crucial to the team’s score. For real, I’ve witnessed high school teams win meets with nobody placing in the top 10, but everyone finishing in the top 30. Conversely, I’ve also seen teams have two runners finish in the top 10 but not win a meet.

The way cross country teams become lethal is when they have a bunch of good runners, and having one or two great ones in the mix is just bonus. The term “bunching” is even used in cross country jargon, having to do with runners on a given team being as tightly bunched as possible, rather than spread out through a given meet’s field.

That means it’s important for a team’s fifth runner to stay as close as possible to the fourth, for the third runner to stay in close proximity to the second, and so on. And it’s not only about bunching, but teammates pushing each other.

If a team’s No. 4 runner appears to be ready to pass the No. 3, that No. 3’s reaction is usually to find another gear and stay ahead of his or her cohort, which in turn typically results in a benefit to the team score. Of course, if the No. 4 does go by, that’s usually a sign of someone getting better, which is obviously also good for the team.

It even goes beyond the scoring five; a good No. 6 runner will always give the No. 5 a good push, which can and will lead to the 5 finishing higher and

In my experience, I’ve also seen a cross country program grow, in which kids sell out to working hard and realizing their full potential. I believe this is a sport in which hard work can and does pay off in a way that isn’t as possible in other sports. With the right approach and attitude, a runner can shave several minutes off his or her “personal best” time – and that can happen in a matter of months, let alone years.

So the bottom line is, a good cross country team (boys or girls) consists of runners who are dedicated to improving and who aren’t opposed to giving their teammates a friendly run for their money, so to speak.

Anyway, I’ve heard that the National Park Service is even allowing a cross country meet to be held at Alley Spring in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. I don’t know what schools will be involved (I understand Houston won’t be), but I guarantee that would be a visual worth fans’ time and effort.

So best wishes and good luck to coach Michelle Henshaw and her harriers from Houston High School and Houston Middle School as they embark on what is more or less a pioneering season for local cross country. For the record, the HHS boys and girls squads will not post team scores this year, since neither has the five runners necessary. But no matter; here’s to hoping some Tiger competitors run their way to some strong finishes – and perhaps even a berth in the state meet.

Also for the record, Houston won’t host a meet this season, but I look forward to when that happens in the future. Let me tell you: There’s nothing like the start of a big meet, when hundreds of runners simultaneously leave the starting line.

The finishes aren’t bad either. Witnessing the crowd cheering on every runner as they sprint toward the finish line is always awe-inspiring.

I’m glad cross country is here, and I hope it’s here to stay.

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