H.S. Cross Country: Pioneer runners seeing the fruits of their labor

  • Members of the Pioneer Valley Regional School girls cross country team pose before a race against Frontier earlier this week in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Recorder Intern
Published: 11/11/2020 7:49:40 PM

The girls cross country team at Pioneer Valley Regional School has always had trouble finding enough runners to roster a full squad. Like most school sports, interest has varied over the years.

But this fall, due to modifications by the MIAA that has resulted in several sports moving to the “Fall II” season in February, cross country in Northfield has thrived in both performance and numbers.

“Historically we have been all over the place with our numbers,” Pioneer girls cross country coach Gina Johnson said. “What helped us was the fact that we’re not doing soccer right now.”

Johnson, who is also a physical education teacher at Pioneer, has been coaching boys and girls cross country for 27 years at the school. Over those 27 years, she said she has coached teams with as few as two runners. Now that soccer has been moved to the Fall II season, the Panthers were able to obtain three more runners, bringing their roster total to nine for the fall campaign.

Two of the runners that came over from the soccer team, sisters Laila and Sahana Heilman, have been particularly impactful. Laila, a 10th-grader, and Sahana, an eighth-grader, decided to make the move over to the cross country team after seeing soccer postponed this fall.

The pair said the choice to join the team was not a challenging one, as there has always been an interest in cross country but it conflicted with their soccer season.

“I always wanted to try cross country, but I didn’t want to skip the soccer season to do so,” Laila said.

The sisters are no strangers to running. Not only have they run back and forth on the soccer field, but they both also compete on the track & field team during the indoor and outdoor seasons at Pioneer.

With soccer not being an option this fall, the pair said it was important to have a sport to turn to during these difficult times.

“Cross country is something that you can do where you can actually stay apart and not have to worry about the coronavirus,” Sahana said.

Laila agreed.

“It just keeps your mind off of all the craziness going on right now,” she added.

Not only has cross country helped the Heilman sisters stay occupied, but it surely will improve their soccer game as well.

“Coming from soccer to cross country is a great transition because that endurance that they need in soccer, they can transition pretty easily,” Johnson said.

Veteran runner Lucy Koester said she’s happy to see that the numbers have been increasing on the cross country team. The junior has been running for the Panthers since the seventh grade.

“I remember being in seventh grade and there were a bunch of us and then it was just declining,” Koester recalled. “I’m really happy that more people want to join cross country and be a part of the family that we have.”

Up until this year, Koester said she’s been looking up to the upperclassmen in the program. As a junior, she is hoping to become that leader that her teammates need.

“I think I have also become more of a leader now that I am an upperclassman,” Koester said.

Koester has embraced the slogan for the Pioneer cross country team – “we run for fun.” She said she pushes herself and her teammates to always be encouraging and to never put anyone down.

That is the philosophy that Johnson has tried to create at Pioneer. The coach said she shows up to practice every day, thrilled to be where she is – ensuring that her student-athletes are having a blast at practices and meets. The more that her runners enjoy themselves, the more likely they are to stay for seasons to come.

“You have to give them something that they enjoy and if they enjoy it, then they’re going to come back,” Johnson offered.

Not only are her runners enjoying cross country this fall, they are also succeeding. The girls team has been particularly competitive against Franklin County opponents, and in a meet against Greenfield earlier this season, the top four spots belonged to Pioneer harriers.

“We have kids who work really, really hard and they care about their performance,” Johnson said.

The Panthers hope to put a winning touch on the end of their cross country season Thursday, as they tangle with perennial powerhouse Mohawk Trail in the finale.

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