The family that runs together: SSHS cross country team harbors dreams of state championship
August 26, 2017
A hard workout awaited, but the Steamboat Springs High School cross country team members weren't stretching and weren't warming up. They gathered in a circle instead, as they'd done the previous afternoon, and the afternoon before that, and as they'll do again a day later.
It's a practical matter, coach Lisa Renee Tumminello explained.
She took over the Sailors' cross country program in 2014, initially sharing head coaching duties before fully taking charge last season.
Many things are much better for the team than they were back in 2014 — nothing more obvious than the team itself.
A top-three team finish at the state championship is the realistic goal for nearly every athlete on the girls varsity team, and winning the state championship itself is the somewhat more optimistic goal.
The boys, too, are poised for perhaps their first team trip to the state meet in nearly a decade.
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Some things are more difficult these days, however, and that's one reason why the Sailors invested some practice time gathered in a circle, staring across at one another.
It was easy to remember the names when there were 30 kids on the team, Tumminello said. This fall, with nearly 70 runners already signed up and, somehow, more showing up every day, something as basic as knowing everyone's name is no longer a given.
"We're going to do this name thing over and over again," Tumminello said. "It's for them, but it's primarily for the coaches."
Sports don't come simpler than cross country, and right now, there aren't any more popular at Steamboat Springs High School. A boldly inclusive approach originating with the coaching staff helped spark the team.
A group of enthusiastic, young athletes helped spread the word, and a pack of swift, talented runners have ramped up competitiveness. It's all resulted in one of the biggest programs in the school's sporting repertoire. As the Sailors prepare for the season, it could all result in one of the school's most successful programs, too.
GROWING BY A BUS
The growth of the Steamboat cross country team might even leave a few Silicon Valley success stories blushing.
There were 33 athletes out for the sport in the fall of 2014. There were 43 in 2015 and 44 in 2016.
It's not yet certain how many there will be on this year's squad. Tumminello could count 65 Wednesday morning. Steamboat athletic director Luke DeWolfe said there were 68 early Wednesday afternoon.
By the time she arrived for practice at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Tumminello said she'd gotten three additional emails from students ready to run.
"We've added eight or 10 in the last week, and the registration deadline was all the way back in July," DeWolfe said. "We still see kids coming out, and I'd anticipate that will continue through the course of the year. You don't really see that in other sports."
That late surge has pushed the cross country program over boys lacrosse as the biggest in the school. That team drew 64 last spring. The girls lacrosse team — which is coached and practices separately — had 23 athletes on the roster, leaving lacrosse as the most popular overall sport in the school. Nevertheless, cross country is gaining fast and quickly prompting school administrators to allocate more resources.
That team three years ago, for instance, easily fit on one bus, which typically can carry about 50 athletes. This year's team will require two busses any time the varsity — seven boys and seven girls — compete together with the junior varsity — everyone else.
The season started with two paid assistant coaches helping Tumminello, Kelly Boniface and Glen Light. The growing team may soon mandate even more help, however.
Steamboat isn't a school utterly lacking in cross country tradition, but most of it dates to at least a decade before this fall's potential stars were even born.
So, what gives?
Everyone involved said it starts at the top.
FROM RODEO TO RUNNING
Lisa Renee Tumminello is the kind of renaissance woman who can define the greater Steamboat sports scene.
She's tackled many of the extreme road cycling endurance challenges in the country, including the grueling Race Across America in 2013. In fact, she spent several years competing with a professional womens cycling team. That came after she tried mountain biking for a stint, but before she and her husband, Doug Tumminello — who has his own wild list of outdoors accomplishments — got neck deep into adventure racing.
Just last week, she finished third in her age division in the USA Cycling Hill Climb National Championships at Pikes Peak. This summer, she and another local veteran of professional cycling, Amy Charity, started a series of cycling summer camps.
Before moving to Steamboat five years ago, she served as a conditioning coach for Denver club sports teams, and she collected scientific athletic data for coaches and program directors.
None of that was what she did first, however. First, she was a rodeo star, competing professionally as a teenager and earning a scholarship to the University of Wyoming.
A nasty spill off of her horse slowed her physically for an entire decade, but when she came back, she came back with gusto.
She didn't set out to be a head high school track and cross country coach, but after splitting the duties with Erik Ramstad for several years, that became the latest thing on her extensive resume.
It's not the resume that's brought dozens of new athletes to cross country, however.
It's the personality — wildly welcoming, extensively enthusiastic and pervasively positive.
She's quick to defer credit to her staff and the students, and they're quick to point right back to her.
"She's made a connection with a broad base of kids," DeWolfe said. "She's established a really positive atmosphere and a positive culture, and those kids really enjoy their time. She and her coaching staff have developed a real sense of family, and those kids feel like they have a home."
STARTING AT THE BOTTOM
It didn't start with competitive teams in track or cross country.
When the new staff took over the track program in 2014, the Sailors hadn't sent an athlete to the state track championships since 2011, and they didn't send any that year, either.
One athlete qualified in 2015, breaking a three-year streak, and one relay team made the cut in 2016.
Finally last spring, however, it all started to pay off.
The team had grown, first simply attracting kids, certainly some who were naturally athletic and drawn in by the competition, but plenty of others who hadn't ever gone out for another sport, who were coaxed in by friends and who found a family.
"Any good team will always have diversity," Tumminello said. "That's a huge part of it, and also, I think it creates an environment where community happens."
It also drew some elite athletes. That depth and talent helped push more athletes to improve, and it resulted in better team results.
The Sailors sent athletes to state track in six events last year, and the team came away with five total medals.
A similar metamorphosis overtook the cross country team. The top four teams at each regional competition advance to state, and in 2013, the girls team wasn't close, placing seventh with 173 points.
In 2014, it was third with 94 points, qualifying for state, and in 2015, the Sailors placed second scoring 87 points, and last fall, after dropping down to Class 3A from 4A, the team won its regional. Steamboat placed first with 34 points and accounted for the top three finishers in the girls race.
They took that success to state where they placed fourth as a team.
There's some precedent for success from Steamboat cross country, especially the girls team. The squad has qualified for state 18 times in its history, and in the early 1990s was straight-up dominant. Steamboat won state championships in 1990 and again in 1991, accounting for two of the last three state championships won by a Steamboat team in any sport.
That fourth-place finish last year was the best Sailors' result since the team won the title in 1991.
As the team was driving home from the state track meet last May, athletes were already deep into thinking about the coming cross country season. Fourth at the 2016 cross country state championship was nice. This fall, however, they're ready for more.
Two of Steamboat's top athletes may demonstrate as well as anything the converging forces that have pushed the Sailors into state title competition — some skilled athletes who arrived in high school with a long-term love of running, then some skilled athletes who were convinced to try the team because of its positive, inclusive vibe and later became dedicated runners.
Maggi Congdon is set for her sophomore season with the team and will enter as one of the top runners in her region and even in the state. She was the regional champion last season, then placed 18th at state.
It's a position she anticipated being in for years, since she learned to love running at age 8. Her only outlet at the time was the Girls on the Run program, 10 weeks of after-school programming designed to build confidence and friendships among preteen girls. The program finishes with a five-kilometer fun run. Congdon spent the entire 5K flying along at the front of the pack.
She loves running and was going to compete in cross country no matter the coach, no matter the state of the team.
"I like that running is the sport our bodies were made to do," Congdon said. "Other sports are fun, but this, you don't need anything for this. It's what we were born to do."
Isabelle Boniface, on the other hand, had other interests and running didn't factor anywhere on the list.
"When I played soccer, I just stood in front of the goal," she said. "I stood there waiting for the ball. I didn't want to run at all."
She had the genes. Her mother, Kelly Boniface, now one of the team's assistant coaches, has made more waves in town as an avid mountain bike racer. She ran cross country and track collegiately, however, competing at Cornell University.
Isabelle opted not to pursue her mother's primary current interest, mountain biking, but found plenty to love in soccer and ski racing.
Initially, cross country was simply supposed to help her condition for those sports. Running quickly became more than just training.
"We had our end-of-the-year banquet, and as soon as I got in the car afterward, I looked at my mom and just said, 'I'm doing track,'" Isabelle said.
"It wasn't even a success thing," she continued. "Yeah, I was proud of my results, but it was more about the people. I couldn't imagine playing on the inside of the track and seeing my friends from cross country running without me."
She dropped both Alpine ski racing and soccer.
"She found her niche," Kelly Boniface said.
Plenty of others don't quit their other sports. The team is loaded with two-sport athletes — frequently two in the same season — plus, there's a healthy contingent of drama club regulars and a few musicians.
"We try to help them balance that," Tumminello said. "We recognize that other sports might be the priority, what you want to do in college, but we will help you in that endeavor."
Isabelle Boniface, a junior, and Congdon, a sophomore, weren't close prior to last year and, they speculate, wouldn't ever have been were it not for the sport they now share. Their friendship deepened throughout this summer as they and several other varsity girls invested in a way they never had.
They ran together four or five days a week and competed in many of the Steamboat Springs Running Series events. Congdon and Winter Boese each won a race, and Boniface had a top time in another.
Congdon, Boese, Boniface, Sadie Cotton and Sierra Harrison all came together late in July to win the women's team competition at the inaugural National High School Trail Running National Championships in Salida.
"This season will be so much different for us," Congdon said. "We've been running all summer. Last season, we didn't do anything."
At least when it comes to results this season, plenty could go wrong. Injuries or illness could wreck any kind of podium plans.
But, the expectations for the team, especially on the girls side, are undeniable. The Sailors return six of the seven girls who ran at state a year ago, including their top three finishers. That influx of runners joining this year's team offers plenty of confidence that someone will be able to step up to fill the one open spot, and that there will be an active competition for the rest of the spots throughout the season.
If all does go well, a top-three finish at state is utterly reasonable. The Sailors finished with 156 points, behind Salida, 133, The Classical Academy, 94, and Peak to Peak Charter School, the state champs with 57.
All three of those top teams return plenty of underclassmen. Salida's top finisher is just a sophomore this year. All four of The Classical Academy's top runners return, as do four of the five Peak to Peak runners who had top-25 finishes.
"Peak to peak, they're a dynasty, and they could probably win state at 4A or 5A with their talent pool, and their top runners are the same ages as all of our top runners," said Glen Light, the assistant who dives deepest into the Sailors' stats and rankings. "It's hard to imagine a scenario where we could beat them unless they have some health issues. But, if we're healthy and can put our best foot forward, we're definitely top five and optimistically, if things go well, we're hopefully in the top three."
The girls have big plans, even when the odds seem long on paper.
"We want to compete with Peak to Peak," Isabelle Boniface said. "It just depends on how our season goes, but in our minds, of course, we always picture ourselves winning the championship."
The boys have a less certain future. The team's top runner a year ago moved out of the district during the summer, but a young core has coaches optimistic.
"I'm curious to see how things shake out after this first meet," Light said. "I think we have an outside chance to go to state."
It all matters, Tumminello said, but only so much. Getting caught up in the potential results ignores what's largely made them possible in the first place: that magnetic family atmosphere.
That's what helped the team grow from 33 to 68, what helped attract and keep some of the team's top runners and what's made cross country the hottest sport at Steamboat Springs High School.
That's what made the start of every practice so distinctive.
If there were still just 33 athletes on the team, there would be no need for athletes to gather in a circle before their workouts and introduce themselves yet again.
The circle gathering didn't last long Tuesday afternoon. Athletes called out their names one after the other and the whole thing took little more than 90 seconds, but when it was over, Tumminello took advantage of the moment, the team gathered around her, eyes focused on her.
"There is something really special happening here," she said in the middle of the group, turning to see everyone. "We want you to know that you are making that happen, you are drawing friends and fellow athletes onto the team. You are building a community."