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Teton harriers left to right, James Allen, Lance Safiran and CG Woiwode (partially obscured) attack Heartbreak Hill at the Cardinal Classic Cross Country Meet in Soda Springs. 

CARDINAL CLASSIC: First Big Event of the Cross Country Season

Coaches Learn at a Challenging Meet

A catchy little tune has been echoing around in my skull lately.

“You’ve got to ac-cent-tuate the Pos-i-tive,

E-limi-nate the neg-a-tive.

Latch on to the af-firm-a-tive.

Don’t mess with Mister in between....”

Like teachers and staff in this new scholastic environment, student-athletes are learning to adjust to new realities. Educators and coaches are working to accentuate the positive.

The Cardinal Classic Cross Country Meet has been an institution every Labor Day weekend going back more than 20 years. This spot on the calendar marks it as the first important test for Teton and many schools in Eastern Idaho as well as northern Utah and western Wyoming. It’s a big meet on a challenging course that mixes the large and small schools in the same maelstrom.

With COVID-19 constraints, meet host Soda Springs High School--hats off to Coach Jeff Horsley and his large race crew and his competitive team--went above and beyond to host a quality event that emphasized safety while welcoming the Timberwolves, the Cougars, the Grizz, the Tigers, the Cardinals, and all the others to play on their turf.

The event became a 2-day meet with middle school races moved to Friday. Fans were constrained in new ways and athletes learned what a big meet looks like in the times of pandemic.

Two major changes would affect the races and results more than all the others and coaches would be required to accentuate the positives and eliminate, or at least, reduce the negative effects on their teams:

The race schedules were altered to get schools in and out of the race venue and reduce the number of teams in any place at the same time. Schools were split into two groups alphabetically. For Teton, this jostled the usual sequence of races significantly.

Our two varsity races--the women followed by the men--were to precede the JV races. It is very rare that our varsity athletes get to race early and the JVs have to wait to race. The weather also favored the earlier racers with our men’s JVs racing in fierce heat.

The other dramatic difference this year was that teams would NOT have the opportunity to physically preview the course before events started. For Teton, this has always been an important part of ritual preparations and a valuable chance to get a feel for the lay of the land. Endurance athletes are going to do battle with the course and to deny them the chance to study the venue is akin to sending them out blind.

Coaches Mindy Kaufman and Caleb Moosman spent time with their harriers last week analyzing course maps and discussing the particular features of the terrain but it is not the same by a long shot. Veterans helped their younger teammates wrap their heads around ‘Heartbreak Hill,” the ‘Screamer Down’ and what the long, lonely ‘Back Forty’ would do to their minds.

The Teton Women were on their heels when their race was called to the startline. Confusion, nerves and the gun!

Sara Bagley always gets out quickly but she was soon joined by teammate Breah Hunter. This is the first race in years when Teton women packed it up so well. At the 2 mile mark Sara and Breah were shoulder to shoulder, Kylie Hunter was 50 seconds back and Mackenzie Lee and Jenna Letham were all within a minute and 10 seconds off that lead pair. By the end of the race only 10 additional seconds separated our first and 5th runner. This proximity bodes well, especially so early in the season.

Teton women have struggled most years with big gaps between the top five. It was in the late 90s that Teton women were second (‘97), first (‘98) and then third (‘99) in team scoring, at a state championship. For this old harrier, Saturday felt like the buildup to a long-awaited redux.

The men’s varsity were the next off the line and they were locked and loaded. They have also rehearsed for greater tightness in the pack and they too benefited from feeding off proximity to teammates. At two miles James Allen and Lance Safiran were shoulder to shoulder and both running very relaxed. CG Woiwode was just 5 seconds behind them and John Woiwode was only 15 seconds behind his brother. Alex Ortiz was still only 52 behind our top pair and he led Noah Machen and Cameron Edwards in a tight grouping. By the end of the race only a minute: 24 separated our top six. 3 veterans logged course PRs (Personal Records for that course). Cameron’s course PR was an impressive 52 seconds and young Alex was in only his second 5k race ever!

The JV teams from the second half of the alphabet ran under the high sun. Three freshmen, 3 sophomores and 2 juniors constituted our women’s team. Goals were more individual than for the varsity athletes. Freshman, Madeline Pentz in her first cross contest in high school was focused on just relaxing and learning the longer distance. Learn, she did, ending her effort with the 7th best time among the Wolves. She was heard to voice the opinion afterwards that the 5 kilometer distance is preferable to middle school races, half that distance. Spoken like a true harrier.

The men’s JV squad came off it’s longest wait time ever. managing their fluid intake and seeking shade would only help in those hot hours leading up to race time. The Wolves rallied one of the largest JV squads at the race. Senior Gavin Behrens raced from the gun, capturing a medal and a spot on varsity for the next race. Sophomore Ty Terry and Junior Ben Adams were both across the line less than 30 seconds behind Gavin. Freshman, Gideon Wilson delivered a message and Junior Carl Ripplinger turned his legs into a blur machine at the finish line.

On the long weekend I got to share some quality time with the cross coaches, running trails and then sitting down to brunch at Butter in Victor. Asked what they thought the biggest lesson was for the Wolfpack moving into the next phase of the season, Coach Kaufman said--and I’m paraphrasing, “I think coaches learned more than anybody.”

With smoke in the skies, they set off to design a training plan for the week. Another week is another opportunity to latch onto the affirmative for the Timberwolves. I’m confident they’ll take what they learned and turn it toward their next challenge.

I was curious about that snappy tune, ”Ac-cen-tuate the Pos-i-tive” My parents had the 78 RPM high-fidelity, record in their extensive collection of swing music. Searching Google took me down a rabbit hole.

Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for the Harold Arlen tune for a romantic comedy musical film. Here’s what really grabbed me: It was written in 1944. The United States was up to its eyeballs in fighting two empires that were claiming racial superiority in two global hemispheres.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Allies would prevail. Maybe our capacity to accentuate the positive gave us an advantage. I found a fresh way to view the pandemic in this election year Autumn of our discontent.

Next on the Race Calendar

The Lobos will travel Saturday morning, September 12th, to Freeman Park in Idaho Falls for the very substantial Tiger-Grizz Meet. It is an outstanding venue that draws teams from a wide radius. Twenty-three small schools will clash in the B Division races while 12 large schools will fill out the A Division races.

The women’s JV will head out on the first race of the day at 9AM followed by the men’s JV at 9:45. Our women’s varsity will seek to close up the pack again at 10:30 with the Canis lupus Alpha males go on the hunt at 11:15.

To follow the Timberwolf harriers, go to www.athletic.net which allows fans to track individual athletes, teams, view meet results and imagine hypothetical meets between teams that don’t see each other until the state meet.