“We’ve still got a runner on the course” came the shout from the Centennial Cross Country Coach. That was all the runners needed to hear. They moved away from their congratulatory hugs, their friends eager to talk about the race, and started looking for their teammate.
She was coming around the last turn, running hard and breathing deep, but she wasn’t alone. A few teammates ran along side, helping her stay motivated, others shouted encouragement, clapping loudly until she crossed the finish line. And when she finished exhausted, red-faced and smiling I quietly wiped the tears dripping down my face.
At Kyrene’s Centennial Middle School over one hundred 6th, 7th and 8th graders hit the trails five days a week. And it doesn’t matter how fast they run or even whether they can run the whole course at all. Cross Country is a no-cut sport. And it’s open to any student willing to get up at the wee hours of the morning and run.
“Students don’t need to come with any particular skill. If you are willing they are open to you,” said District Athletic Director Gavin Martin. “It does allow the students to participate in a sport and represent their school.”
No cut means kids who haven’t had the advantage of club sports get to try out a team sport and see if it fits. Over 500 students ran cross country at Kyrene’s six middle schools this past season.
My daughter was one of those runners last year. She’s not a front-of-the-pack athlete. At meets she never pushed herself too hard. In fact, she ran the course with a broad smile, chatting up parents she recognized along the route, clearly not “killing” herself with exertion. But running is great to help her control her Type 1 diabetes and we were grateful for the enthusiasm of her coaches at Centennial who always encouraged her.
“The coaches love no-cut sports,” said Tim O’Donnell, Vice Principal and Athletic Director at Centennial. “They know that these are the sports that create an opportunity for kids to get involved that may normally pass on sports due to a lack of confidence or feeling that they don’t have the skill set necessary for the cut sports.”
Last year a vision impaired athlete ran for Centennial. A coach ran with her at every meet and practice, shouting out directions to keep her on course and make her aware of physical barriers like curbs. At Aprende Middle School a student with Autism runs cross country, and a hearing impaired student runs for Kyrene del Pueblo Middle School. Other students who participate may have hidden disabilities but, they know they can count on teammates for encouragement.
“It’s always an inspiration to watch kids perform at their personal best,” says O’Donnell, “They show that, despite the challenges and obstacles involved, they can overcome and do great things.”
These same cross country runners will lace up their running shoes again in the spring for Track and Field, which is also a no-cut sport. In the winter they can go out for no-cut wrestling, which is open to both boys and girls.
Largely because of the popularity of no-cut sports Kyrene now offers intramural sports for the smaller team sports like volleyball, tennis and basketball.
“We probably had over 300 girls try out for volleyball for 160 – 180 spots,” says Gavin. “Making cuts are the hardest thing for coaches,” he adds. “We don’t want to discourage them. We want to keep that fire. So now we can offer them a spot on an intramural team.”
The intramurals allow students to learn the fundamentals of a sport or develop more advanced skills. Practices are held in the evenings and the teams play against other Kyrene schools on Saturdays.
And no-cut and intramural doesn’t mean the sports aren’t competitive. The intramural volley ball players dive for balls, and show the scars of tough play just like players on the JV and Varsity teams. There’s an intramural tournament at the end of the season, and their team results echo over the loud speakers at school pep rallies with pride.
And if you want to see the impact sports have on kids this age, come to a Track meet this spring. Wait a bit after the pack clears the finish line, and you’ll see the best of youth athletics. Striding down the course are the kids who lay it all out there every week for that moment of accomplishment, where everyone is cheering just for them. Just remember to bring your tissues.