On Nov.12, the Hesston College women’s cross country team gathered for their last huddle at the 2016 NJCAA Division I Cross Country Championship. Just like every other huddle that season, they “flapped their wings” as they ran into the huddle at coach Gerry Sieber’s command, “Larks fly home.”
“They were excited to be there,” said Sieber. “I can only describe it as a sacred moment watching them do our ritual after the race, to see them interact and celebrate with nothing but joy at the end.”
The team competed well, ending up 29th out of 37.
“It was a great ending for the women after the rigors and challenges of their three-month cross country journey, including the 750 miles they’ve run, endless hours of training, injury and competitive challenges,” said Sieber.
Freshman Sierra Broce (Goddard, Kan.) finished as Hesston’s number one runner, as she has done all year except once, placing 127th overall with a time of 20:49. Team co-captain, sophomore Renee Buckwalter (Wellman, Iowa), came in second to Broce with her best time of the year, 21:14. Freshmen Sadie Winter (Newton, Kan.), Katelyn Kilmer (Goshen, Ind.), Savannah Bontrager (Milford, Neb.), and sophomore Eva Dwyer (Goshen, Ind.) followed. Out of the eight women on the team, Sieber was only allowed to take six, and two of the eight were dealing with health issues.
“It was a very exciting atmosphere,” said Buckwalter. “We were racing with some of the best runners in the nation which was a little intimidating and nerve-racking, but also a lot of fun.”
It was a beautiful day for running, still and cool, in El Dorado, Kan. Fifty schools and 315 runners gathered from across the country to run their last race of the season. The challenging course was familiar to the women; they had competed there earlier in October to earn a trip to the 2016 NJCAA Division I XC Championship, and now here they were.
During the previous meet in October, hosted by Butler Community College, the team struggled to compete due to record high temperatures and gusty winds. This time, the team surpassed their goal of placing between 30th and 35th.
This was the first year that the meet has ever been held in Kansas, a location chosen because of its centrality. The NJCAA Division I Men’s & Women’s Cross Country Championship is an open meet where any team can go, but Gerry Sieber, who has been coaching the cross country team for seven years, said this is the first year Hesston has sent a full team.
“We’ve maybe been overly cautious about not abusing the privilege,” Sieber said. “In some ways we were running for the previous teams that could’ve done well and missed the opportunity.”
Sieber felt that this team was more than deserving to go.
“At the end of any season, athletes get burned out,” he said. “But I was pleased with the focus, energy, and strong commitment the girls had all the way until the end.”
Sieber likes to describe this team’s season as a journey. He refers to the quote, “If you don’t enjoy the journey, chances are you won’t enjoy the destination.”
He also emphasized that not all his goals for this season were related to performance.
“These six women have shown incredible resilience and growth this season, proving to be physically and mentally empowered,” Sieber said. “This group of women might be as tight as any group we’ve had, and I’m glad they could take away friendships and strong relationships from this journey.”
After the team ended their journey and ran their final course, for the last time, they “flew out” of the huddle. The sendoff? “Larks fly away.”
by Jasmine Pankratz