COLUMBIA — You can call them The Nine.
Over the summer, nine runners on the Hickman High School cross country team decided their newfound team camaraderie deserved a name. Nothing too complex, but something relevant to them and them only.
“At first we were just messing around and were like ‘There’s nine of us,’” junior Cooper Lee said. “Then we started getting a lot closer, and we were like, we need a name, and we were like ‘The Nine.'”
There are 17 male runners on Hickman’s cross country team but this group distinguishes itself from the rest of the team.
It could be that they are the fastest of the pack. But more than likely it’s because of their socks.
While on an 8-mile run down Providence Road this summer, seniors Nate Gutwein and Ethan Zars made plans to leave a legacy at Hickman in their final season on the team.
“Me and Ethan wanted to do something as a team, kind of start a tradition,” Gutwein said. “Something that could be passed on for following years.”
They brought the idea to the rest of The Nine – freshmen Travis Line and Dillon McCann, sophomore Alex Keneipp and juniors Loyal Carpenter, Jacob Line, Brenden Rost and Lee – a group that can be distinguished by its wardrobe.
At varsity cross country meets in Missouri, each team can field up to seven runners. At Hickman, runners compete every week for those top seven spots come the weekend. The two who ran the slowest times the previous week are bumped down to the junior varsity level for at least one meet. The Nine are the ones who have typically earned varsity spots.
Lee, who helped trademark the group’s name, said that because the varsity roster can change any given week, each athlete is encouraged to push the runner next to him.
“That’s why we have to stay competitive and keep getting better, or you’ll get beat by someone and you won't be varsity,” he said.
If you don’t run varsity, you don’t wear the socks.
Arguably the most stylish of the group, Lee was put in charge of vetting the socks for just the right material, design and colors. Little did the rest of the group know, he already had a specific pair in mind.
Nike Elite are the "it" socks of 2012. They can be spotted on basketball players at high schools, colleges and the NBA. According to the Nike website, the crew socks feature fancy new technology and extra cushioning in “high-impact areas.” But they are best known for the thick stripe that runs vertically from the top of the sock to the tip of the heel.
Lee has been wearing them since last winter when he used them on the Hickman wrestling team, and he has been hooked on them since, despite the socks being originally designed for basketball.
“Elites are kind of in style right now,” he said. “If you don’t wear high socks you’re a nobody, man. You gotta do it.”
He went online and picked out a black and gray color scheme with gold on the back stripe to match the team colors. Each member of The Nine ordered one pair of the $15 socks just in time for the Hazelwood Central Invitational on Sept. 15 in St. Louis.
Head coach Steve Kissane found out about the sock idea a week later when he was asked about it for this story.
“Is this something they picked today to do?” he said when asked how he felt about the socks. “Do they do this once a week? I don’t know.”
He added that if the socks are something fun they want to do to unify the team, then he is OK with that because “there are sure worse things they could do.”
“We say you’re either trying to get attention or you’re trying to get respect,” he said.
His athletes, including Gutwein, who would rather not be remembered for his team’s flashy clothing, have echoed that advice.
“I don’t think anyone has said anything about (the socks),” Gutwein said. “We’re not huge about getting attention, we’d rather get respect.”
Lee has not heard anything about the team’s footwear either but for a different reason.
“We were going so fast you couldn’t really see them.”