Flame still burns at SoHi

Posted: Tuesday, October 02, 2001

One torch was passed over the weekend at the state cross country championships at Palmer High School. Another torch stayed resolutely where it was at.

The common bond between both events came 20 minutes after the awards ceremony in Palmer's gym. Fifty-nine schools and 351 athletes had competed that day, and all but 58 schools and 337 athletes had gone home.

Those that remained were all wearing Soldotna Stars blue. They had stayed behind to rehash the events of the day, some fighting an unsuccessful battle to choke back tears.

"I wish I had picture of that, right there," said Soldotna coach Mark Devenney, motioning toward the lingering group of athletes across the gym. "That says it all."

That Devenney chose to tie such meaning to that particular moment is noteworthy, because there had certainly been other moments during the past few hours that could have said it all.

One such moment came during the awards ceremony, when 2001 Soldotna graduate Andy Liebner presented senior Kyle McBride with the award for the top runner in the boys 4A race.

When Liebner and McBride came to Soldotna, winning state titles was something schools from the Kenai Peninsula often assumed was the right of Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna valleys and Fairbanks schools that were two, three and four times as big as Soldotna.

But last year, Liebner became the first peninsula runner to win a big-schools state title. Then, to show it was no Buster-Douglas-becomes-heavyweight-champion-type fluke, McBride dominated the field at Palmer Saturday in order to set up the Liebner-to-McBride torch passing at Saturday's ceremony.

Another moment that Devenney could have pointed out came during the awards ceremony, when the Soldotna boys were announced the victors in a tense race with Kodiak and Palmer for the big-schools team title.

It was the third straight time the Stars finished atop the state, a run that makes it easy to forget that three years ago, no peninsula team had ever worn a big-schools state crown.

But the moment Devenney chose was after the competition, after the awards, and after the eyes of the state were off the Stars once again. But there they were, alone in the gym, still together and talking emotionally about running.

It would be easy to attribute that devotion to Devenney, a ardent follower of track and cross country who coached many athletes on their way to the Olympics before coming to Soldotna about a decade ago.

But while Devenney supported the devotion, he certainly isn't solely responsible for it. A college or professional coach can go out and find devoted, skilled athletes. A high school coach has to wait for those special athletes to come along.

Devenney was one of the nation's top 400-meter runners when he was in high school, but as much as he was willing to talk about the training and dedication required to get to that level, he needed to find an athlete to turn those words to action.

That athlete was 2000 graduate Brandon Newbould. In what is now Soldotna's trademark, Newbould took some of Devenney's finely tuned training plans and actually executed them during the summer.

What's more, Newbould, a natural leader, started bringing teammates with him on runs. Before Newbould's senior year, future state champs Liebner and McBride marveled at Newbould's work ethic as they joined him on training runs throughout the summer.

They then watched as that work ethic spurred the Stars to their first state team title. The word was out, and during the next two years more and more Soldotna runners got on the summer program, and more and more state titles started rolling Soldotna's way.

Although he was thousands of miles away studying at college, Newbould was in Palmer in both spoken and unspoken word Saturday.

After finally filing out of the gym, Soldotna took a jog that became tradition in Newbould's senior year. Captain Bill Keller said the reason for the run was the same reason Newbould had given three years ago: "In case anybody doesn't know why we won."

Newbould's attitude also was present in the uncertain moments immediately following the boys race, when Soldotna wasn't sure if it won, but team members, particularly McBride, weren't overly concerned.

"If we don't win, our hard work still will have taken us farther in the past three years than anybody would have thought," McBride said. "What happens, happens."

It was eerily similar to something Newbould said after losing a race his junior year: "I can't say I'm disappointed with myself because I only missed four days of training this summer and I've been working hard in practice."

Runners don't have total control over the awards, the races or many of the things that happen once the eyes of the state are upon them. What they can control is what happens in the summer, when everybody is off doing something else and they're supposed to get together and be devoted to running.

That's exactly the attitude that was present those 20 minutes after the awards ceremony.

That's what says it all.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. E-mail him at clarion@alaska.net.

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