There’s something that happens at the end of every Suffield Middle School Cross Country race that brings at least a few parents to tear up.
Suffield teammates already through the finish line return to come back across the line with the final runner.
It’s a prime example of the all-inclusive climate that exists around the middle school cross country team.
“I believe that cuts for sports should not be made until high school because kids develop at different times in their life, some earlier and some much later, so it is important to give everyone time to succeed,” said the team’s coach Linda Begley.
Suffield’s team was 24 kids in 2004 but is now 126 athletes strong because of that philosophy, making it one of the top one or two largest teams in the state.
“Unfortunately, some teams do not want to run against us because of our overwhelming numbers,” Begley explained. “So that is why we have to scale back on away meets. Also, everyone must be able to race two miles under a certain pace in order to travel.”
According to Begley, the girls have not lost a regular season meet since 2005, the same year they won the State Championship. The boys have only lost one meet, by one point, since 2005. Since 2005, the girls have either won the State meet or come in second and the boys have done the same since 2007.
Kids say they flock to the team each fall to be with their friends and because of the energy and excitement of the team and their coaches.
“She gives you compliments and she’ll run with you and keep pushing you to be your best,” said Ashley Meehan, a seventh grade runner.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Coach Begley who first volunteered to spend time with her then sixth-grade son. An avid runner and competitor, she requested to coach the team the next year and the team has grown to over 100 athletes every year.
What drives you to spend so much of your time and energy on working with these kids?
Running has been my passion since I was 16 when I began my running career and it became my outlet, my sport of choice and my ticket to college among other things. From that experience I learned what running can do for people and I want to pass it on.
I send out so much email information so that parents are always up to date and educated on the sport of running and it draws them in, too. As a competitive runner, I loved looking at the results of races that I competed in and so I make it a priority to get the kids’ results out to them the night of the meet. Parents have told me that they have given the kids permission to stay up later to see the results. The parents enjoy the results as well and the kids love looking at the results to see how they did against their teammates and other team and to check their progress throughout the year.
It is not that I have the time, I make the time. I have never missed a practice or a meet since 2004. I feel like if I am going to commit to coaching a team, I must be 100 percent committed, by showing up every day, educating myself on new methods and doing all the other stuff that goes with it. I think it is important that the kids respect who is coaching them and that has to be earned, not demanded, in order to get great results from the athletes. For a few years, the runners did not know my (extensive) running background. They just thought I was a mom that also ran frequently. Now I will occassionally use my running experience to motivate them for training and racing. I try to run with them if I am not injured or ride the bike with them. I can't imagine sending them out on a run without being there because it helps to see what is going on in their training. I have a wonderful and positive assistant, Gosia Baker who always has a smile on her face and we also get some wonderful volunteers who are always interested in helping in any way who are very interested in the sport.
Positive energy transfers from the coaches to the kids. They see the passion and they become passionate about running. They know that everyone is an important member of the team no matter what their ranking is as long as they try in practices and races.
The biggest energy booster for me is the enthusiasm and motivation that is apparent with the middle school kids. I love them. They make coaching fun. When I see them each day, everything is right with the world.
What is your philosophy for motivating/coaching them?
It is important to try new sports because you never know if you would excel in something else if you don't try. So many kids are wrapped around one sport. It is good to see them try different sports before they reach high school. Running is a great way to train for every sport and it is good that the parents allow their kids to try more than one at a time if possible.
My motivation for them is to try to improve their own pace as much as possible throughout the season and for the team to excel at the state level. This is a team sport as well as an individual sport. Everyone's improvement is acknowledged throughout the season.
Running is a difficult sport and, therefore, the rewards are great.
What do you hope they take away from the experience?
A lot of kids who have been on the team have told me that cross country was a great part of their middle school experience. I want to keep that going.
I want them to try coaching one day and use this positive experience... to give everyone a chance and that everyone develops at different times so don't be so quick to cut. I have had athletes that started in the back of the pack only to get faster each year as they figure the sport out and some of those kids have gone on to be in the top seven on their high school teams.
And, as far as cheering the last runner in... is that a Suffield thing or do all teams do this?
Cheering the last runner definitely started with the Suffield team. It started in 2005 when the winner from Suffield went back to support his friend who was in last place. It was nice to see this happening without him realizing he was starting something extraordinary. Funny thing is, this last place runner may not have excelled in running but he was a champion golfer and an exceptional pianist. This was a great lesson in humility for all those that experience this same scenario and helps them understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and to respect everyone regardless.
We now run in with the last runner to show that every runner is important to the team.
For more information and a team schedule check out the Suffield Middle School website ms.suffield.org