FORT WAYNE — You take small steps when it comes to rebuilding a cross country program after a 15-year hiatus. When Heritage cross country coach Matthew Smith took his team out for summer conditioning a couple of weeks ago, his goal for some of them was to see if they could go 10 minutes without walking.
“We have slowly and surely built from there,” he said. “Two weeks in, everybody can run the full 3.1 miles without stopping at all.”
It’s all about perspective.
Heritage dusted off cross country as a sport this season after the program was lost in the late 1990s because of budget cuts. And except for one male and one female runner, the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores with little experience.
“The big thing was starting off small,” Smith said. “The top two runners, I could send them off on tough workouts. The other runners were about building them up.”
Smith, an assistant track coach and teacher at Heritage Junior High for nine years, has been recruiting kids to run cross country since the sport was approved in February.
“I hope they all improve dramatically from our first meet against Bellmont, to the sectionals,” said Smith, a 1998 Bishop Luers graduate and former Knights runner. “If we can build every meet and get a little bit better. … The goal is five years from now we have a nice program built up, and these kids can look back and say they were there to start it all.
“The biggest motivation is we would go out for track meets, and we would have one two-miler and the other teams in our conference would have five or six. We saw it as something we needed to do to build up our track program on the distance side.
"We felt like we had a lot of kids who would be interested if we brought it back, and that seems to be the case.”
The roster is made up of seven boys and five girls, and Smith said a lot of the runners are involved in other fall sports.
Smith is receiving a stipend from East Allen County Schools just as other coaches, but almost everything else for the two teams come from fundraising, hand-me-downs and creative thinking. The uniforms and warm-ups come from the track team, and Smith himself spent the summer hand-sewing the flags for the home cross country course, which will hang on PVC pipes, and was able to buy a stopwatch and other smaller items thanks to fundraising efforts.
The team will have four home meets on a course that is partly made up of the old course, with detours around new additions to the property like a softball field and elementary school.
“The coaches had been harping about bringing it back, so I decided to give it a shot and see if we could make it work,” Heritage athletic director Cheri Gilbert said. “We have some kids who are interested, so we are giving it a try.
“We are hoping to have a junior high program, but I don’t know how many kids will be interested. It seems like we have some interest there too. If we can get those kids interested, it will help feed the high school program too.”