Kewpies runners grow closer on and off course

Wednesday, November 7, 2007 | 12:05 a.m. CST; updated 11:06 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008
From left to right: the Kewpies' Christian Hulen, Danny Nabelek, Sam Masters, Zach Lynn, Jordan Fleming and Alex Nail.

COLUMBIA — The 2007 Hickman boys’ cross country team wasn’t much different than the 2006 team. The runners were all the same, the coaching was the same, even the practice routines were the same.

Yet, while the 2006 team didn’t even qualify for the state championships, this year’s team finished fifth at the state meet, only six points away from earning team All-State honors. Still, seniors Sam Masters and Joey Walls, and junior Jordan Fleming, qualified individually for a spot on the All-State team. Only two other schools had three All-State runners in 2007.

Last year, Masters and Fleming finished high enough at the sectional meet to qualify for the state championships, and Fleming’s 79th was the best finish between the two. They were the only returning runners with state meet experience. This year’s team had four runners finish better than Fleming did in 2006.

While all seven varsity runners on this year’s team ran for the Kewpies last year, the 2007 Kewpies were a different team, something the runners attribute to a change in attitude.

“I can’t describe it. We just came together about the second week of practice,” Fleming said. “I know everyone was motivated to do well as a team, and we just started really early.”

The new team dynamic began in workouts over the summer. The team would meet for informal runs in the mornings, just like past teams have done. This year, however, the team followed up these practices by spending their after-practice free time together playing games, watching movies or just visiting each other at home. They made sure that no member was excluded.

“As far as our team goes, we’re all really good friends, and we enjoy being with each other,” senior Christian Hulen said. “We’re comfortable around each other. Comfortable almost to the point where we’re a family.”

Hulen and Masters have spent summers together training for past seasons, but agree that this year was different.

“In the summer, all we do is hang out with each other,” Masters said. “No matter what kind of personalities end up on the team, we just end up really good friends.”

All of the time together eventually developed into what the runners describe as a “team-first mentality.”

At practices, the runners that finish the workouts first fight off urges to drink water or lie down to stay at the finish line and cheer on teammates finishing behind them. By the end of a practice, runners gasp out congratulations and exchange exhausted high-fives, nearly collapsing into each other.

“Other teams would have people so worried about their own individual performances, and whether or not they have raced up to their potential,” Hulen said. “But we’re not worried about how we do individually, we’re only worried about how the team does, and as long as we compete well enough to help the team out, then that’s all that matters.”

Fleming, a member of the Hickman basketball team, is the only member of the team that participates in a sport other than cross country or track.He said the relationships he has with his basketball teammates “doesn’t even compare at all” to the team chemistry in cross country.

“On the basketball team, being part of the team doesn’t mean this much,” Fleming said. “But when it comes to cross country, it feels like I’m more on a team, because we do things together all the time.”

This season, the Kewpies rode their team spirit as success started early with a team title in the competitive Hazelwood Central Invitational in only the third meet of the season. Since then, the team didn’t slow down, winning both the district and sectional meets leading up to the state championships.

The Kewpies were expected to finish higher than fifth in the team competition, but senior Jamon Kimbrough came to the meet sick, and coach Steve Kissane decided to replace him with Danny Nabelek, the team’s alternate. Kimbrough had been the fifth runner for the Kewpies and had he been healthy, the Kewpies appeared positioned to qualify as a team for all-state honors, a goal they set at the beginning of the year.

“It was kind of disappointing, and I feel like we could have gotten second or third if we would have had our fifth guy in there,” Masters said after the state race. “But stuff happens, and we gave it our all today and that’s all we can really ask for. Everyone did their part.”

Although the fifth-place finish was bittersweet, Kissane has turned the focus to the spring track season.

“We’re getting over the initial sting of missing a trophy by such a narrow margin,” Kissane said. “You hurt for the kids because they work so hard and want it so much. But when you take a look at how far the group came in the last couple of years, not even getting here a year ago, and then putting three on the podium today, it’s impressive.”

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