By Kevin Green
Coach David Crynes knows there is work to do.
The Stillwater girls’ cross-country program has been in the same position for years, having not made the state meet since 2002. The program hasn’t grown in that time either.
“We typically average 8-12 girls each year,” assistant coach Rusty Atkins said. “It is hard to compete with the bigger schools that have much more girls than us.”
Crynes said he knows it will be hard to emulate other teams’ success, but he knows what needs to be done to get the program heading in that direction
“In the fall, cross-country competes with volleyball and softball, two sports that are both popular in Oklahoma,” Crynes said. “It’s a matter of changing culture, which takes time. You have to create a program that is popular in high school, and also one that develops interest in the elementary and middle schools.”
On occasion, Crynes has the top varsity girls run with the junior varsity boys at practice so they can get some competition from outside of their group.
Senior Rachel Brown said running with the boys is helpful and makes everyone better because they have people to push them, but the girls wish the boys were a group of girls instead so it would be more realistic.
“We really want an atmosphere where our top 14 girls are fighting for varsity spots, which would help everyone get faster,” Brown said. “Right now, there’s hardly any competition. The girls that are on varsity are set there.
“The sixth, seventh and eighth times aren’t close enough to switch back and forth every race. Team competitiveness is something that’s going to be really important in the future. In future years as we continue to grow, varsity will get better because there will be more competition on the team.”
That dream seems distant at this point. The Lady Pioneers have had two races this season where they were unable to fill all seven varsity spots, running only six.
There are 10 girls on the team, but those six girls are sometimes the only available runners for a meet because of injuries, junior varsity included.
“Because we have such few numbers, we all have to work really hard, and we all have to be ready to run varsity,” senior Ella Luttbeg said. “Pretty much everyone on our team has run varsity this year, so we just need everybody on board.”
Atkins said he believes the injuries are a minor setback.
“Of course you’re going to get some bumps and bruises, and we’re battling through some injuries right now, but I think once we get healthy and become a full squad, we can do some damage,” Atkins said.
Suffering injuries on a small team like Stillwater’s could be detrimental to a season, especially if the top runner is one of the people injured.
Junior Elise Rackley is the top runner for the Lady Pioneers, and she suffered a right hip injury early in the season.
Brown said no one on the team, including the coaches, knows what is causing Rackley’s pain.
“It’s really stressful because we don’t want her to run too much and not rest and actually injure herself,” Brown said. “We’re not racing for the next one or two races; the important part is regional and state. We try to keep the mentality that these races aren’t as important, so it’s OK to go easy, it’s OK to not do as well as you want because of an injury or a pain. We want to save our energy for the races that are more important.”
Rackley said she does feel the pressure of not letting the team down, but she is not as worried about her injury as everyone else. Although she is the fastest runner, Rackley said every girl needs to remain mentally strong in races for the team to meet its goals.
“Everyone is going to have to run as good as they can if we’re going to make it to state, so I think everyone has some pressure,” Rackley said.
Even with Rackley healthy, Stillwater is one varsity runner short. Normally, a freshman is brought up to fill the last spot, which won’t be any different this year. However, Brown, who was brought up her freshman year, said Crynes is bringing up two girls instead of one.
Brown said it is another struggle caused by the size of the team.
“We are struggling with numbers, so we have to pull up freshmen,” Brown said. “In most cases, we’d only pull them up if they would be varsity runners, but now we’re pulling up just as a necessity for numbers.”
Crynes has a plan set in place that will prevent the need for freshmen, but it will take time. He said presenting an attractive alternative for girls who are deciding how to spend their time and energy is the most effective way to develop a strong girls program.
“You have to make it fun, take out the awkwardness of being an athlete and show them the value of running as a lifetime sport,” Crynes said. “I also like to bring older runners who role model that very strength and confidence to our girls and show them how empowering running can be.”
Crynes plans to use this philosophy as a way to attract not only high school girls to the cross-country program, but also junior high girls. Crynes said the junior high girls have been losing interest, so he wants to start them even earlier. He wants to instill a cross-country program in Stillwater elementary schools.
Unlike many schools it competes against, Stillwater does not have an elementary program. The lowest the program goes is sixth grade.
“Our plans are to develop running programs in elementary schools and host some elementary school cross-country meets to generate interest early and develop Stillwater as a true running community,” Crynes said. “My selfish goal is for Stillwater to be known as the distance running capital of Oklahoma.”
With more interest, the more runners the Stillwater girls’ cross-country team will have. The more runners it will have, the better chance it will have of being a legitimate threat in Class 6A.
“It would add a lot more competition because it would help people work harder,” Luttbeg said. “If there’s three girls next to you who have the same times as you, and you’re trying to work to be faster than them, then you’re all working harder and faster. Varsity spots would mean a little bit more.”
Team competitiveness is something that is going to be important in the Lady Pioneers’ future. As the team continues to grow under Crynes, the varsity team hopes the added competition will help the team to get better.
Qualifying for state is the first step for the program’s developmental needs.
“Within three years, we want to be a top 10 program and establish sustained excellence,” Crynes said. “Within five years we want to contend for a state championship.”