The displaced harriers of Kingwood High School in Texas, forced from their school by Hurricane Harvey late last month, are thrilled to have received and accepted an invitation from the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation (NSAF) to compete in the upcoming Great American Cross Country Festival on October 7.
“All of us are very grateful,” said Mustangs boys’ head coach Tate Symons. “This is an opportunity we wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for the NSAF. The kids are very excited about it.”
As a non-profit foundation, the NSAF can provide travel grants to teams in special circumstances and these resources will enable 14 athletes from Kingwood’s boys and girls teams – along with coaches Symons (boys) and Jeremy Dye (girls) – to travel to Cary, N.C. and compete.
The Mustangs will enhance the already outstanding competition in the meet’s Nike Race of Champions events. GAXC, held at WakeMed Soccer Park, is the Official NXN Southeast Pre-Regional Meet. With the two Kingwood squads eventually planning to try and qualify for nationals out of their own region, NXN South, this meet will provide them with some great completion against teams they might even see again in Portland.
It will also be a homecoming of sorts for the Kingwood program, which competed at GAXC in its early days between 1999 and 2003 – in the pre-NXN days and during Symons’ first few years as head coach. In fact, the 2001 Kingwood boys won GAXC at Rock Hill, S.C. en route to becoming The Harrier’s national champion (see photo at right, from Donna Dye, DyeStat.com). “I remember it was hot and humid and some of the other teams weren’t used to it,” he recalled. “We beat La Salle (Ohio) and that was a big reason why were national champions.”
To say the invitation came as a big surprise to the program would be an understatement. Coach Symons said he was between classes during one of the first days of school when he listened to a voice message he had received from the NSAF– and wasn’t sure he could believe what he’d heard. “I said, ‘I think I’ve got to play that again, because I think they want to bring us to Great American.”
As soon as he got a chance at school that afternoon, Coach Symons told Coach Dye, and all of the athletes, about the opportunity. “Their faces really lit up,” said Dye.
You could say the revelation of a GAXC invite was a great reward for a program which had been already determinedly overcoming great challenges. Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath overwhelmed the Houston area and surrounding region in late August and early September, particularly with the days of all-time record rainfall. So badly was Kingwood High School flooded and so massive was the anticipated recovery effort that officials determined classes could not be held there for perhaps the entire school year. A deal with neighboring Summer Creek High School was worked out so Kingwood could hold its classes there in the afternoon during an extended school day.
Coach Symons noted the loss of much of the history and archives of the Kingwood XC and track programs due to the flooding, going back more than 30 years – trophies, records, articles, photos, as well as uniforms and equipment. The ordeal has received significant media attention. Coach Dye detailed to Mary Albl in a DyeStat.com story about his having moved to the area (he previously coached and taught at Thompkins HS) just as the rain was just starting from the storm, and then surveying the damage afterward during his first few days in the community. The teams have shown a lot of resiliency and strength, and are using the adversity to empower them.
“The kids are doing really well,” Coach Symons said, noting that a number of families in the program have had to make alternative living arrangements due to flooding and hurricane damage. “A number of the kids were displaced … but Kingwood is a strong community. The kids get to train from 7am to 9am in the morning, before they go to school … and the arrangement with Summer Creek is working well. They’ve been very accepting.”
The boys’ team coming to GAXC includes senior Eddie Barnett; juniors Alec Fernandez, Kevin Matz, Trent Nolen, Josue Orduno and Carter Storm; and sophomore Nicholas Majerus. The girls’ squad includes seniors Megan Eichler and Jessica Hergot; juniors Rachel Braden, MaKenzie Clark and Allie Self; and sophomores Rachel James and Daniela Wisniewski.
Coach Symons said he has a young team, currently led by the 10th-grader Majerus – who has won one invite and placed second in two others. As a team, they won the Oak Ridge Invite, were 2nd at their own Kingwood/Andy Wells Invite, then 3rd at the Texas A&M Invite. Coach Dye’s girls’ squad won Oak Ridge and their own meet, then was 2nd at A&M. The sophomore James has been the Mustangs’ #1 on each occasion.
“The thing that helped the kids the most is when they were able to start racing,” said Coach Dye. “Getting to go out and compete kind of made everything better.”
Both Mustang teams have goals of getting on the podium – and even winning – Texas 6A state titles this fall, as well as qualifying for NXN. The girls’ team has made it to Portland twice, including 2015, while the boys’ highest finish at NXN South was 5th – last year, when they were just 20 points out of 3rd.
Photo credits: Kingwood team photos sent by coaches; 2001 GAXC Awards photo from Donna Dye, DyeStat.com.