Cross country brings brothers together again
It was a new trail, but it was the same place, and as Kenan Staples pulled into the Wamego Country Club golf course parking lot for October's cross country state championships, that same feeling washed over him.
Soon he was zipping across the course just as he had long before. And, even though it had been 10 years since Staples helped Eudora to its only team cross country championship, he said from the moment he stepped out of the car he was anxious and he was excited.
But Staples' return to the scene of one of his greatest high school achievements is only a part of the story. That he was there to support the tiny first-year team his brother Titus coaches, and that that team, which didn't even exist in July, qualified for the state meet in the first place -- that's the story, Kenan said.
"I've been away from it, but going back to state was a lot of fun," Kenan said. "The team was really excited about the sport and Titus was really excited and it was all a lot of fun."
It all started when an ambitious student approached Titus Staples. Staples was mowing his lawn in Natoma, a small Kansas town about 30 miles north of Russell, and the Natoma High School student that flagged him down had big plans -- he wanted to start a cross country team.
Staples, the principal at the school, acknowledged immediately that there were a number of problems with the plan.
First, to that point there was only one kid in the school interested in starting a cross country team.
Second, in schools that small, it's nearly impossible to start an additional fall sport without cutting into the source of the town's pride -- its football team. Natoma is one of the smallest schools in the state and it plays in the smallest football division, 8-man division II.
Football players ditching football is, to say the least, frowned upon, Staples said.
That was all overcome, however. A little last-second convincing netted his team four athletes, none of whom had ever run cross country, three of whom he shared with the football team and two of whom couldn't claim English as a natural language.
But the small team from Natoma High came to life, thanks to two trusting Natoma natives and a pair of German foreign exchange students.
And thanks to nearly constant in-season cell phone calls from big brother Titus to the cross-country experienced Kenan, the team did more than just exist -- it went to regionals placed second, qualifying the team for state.
"There's more that goes into it than people think. I had never coached before and three of the four boys played football -- two of them were big factors on the varsity team. We were trying to come up with a workout that complemented the football workouts and at the same time gave them their distance mile and distance training."
Kenan helped the 1996 Eudora boys cross country team claim the Class 3A state championship, a race at the same Wamego location where the 2006 race took place. After graduating from Eudora the next spring, he ran one season of cross country and track at Emporia State.
It had been a long time, Kenan said, but when his brother started calling -- calls that came before the season and during it, before practices and during them -- it all came back.
"I'll occasionally go out for a run, but I really got away from it," Kenan said. "Every time he'd call me and tell me about something they'd done, or what kind of training they were doing, it'd remind me of things and it was a lot of fun to think of that.
"It slowly came back to me. I had to jog my memory back to some of the practices we did at Eudora. He'd ask me certain things about a course they were going to and I'd think back about how we'd prepared."
Kenan, the assistant coach who had never seen his team, got out of the car at Wamego and a rush of memories came back. He ran and cheered for Eudora boys and girls earlier in the day, then did it again as the 1A boys race approached.
He offered advice and tips and worked out strategies for kids he'd heard so much about -- kids who had heard so much about him. It all seemed natural, he said.
The team responded with its best race of the season. It only takes four runners to register as a full team at the 1A level, a break from the five required to enter a 4A race. The four runners Titus assembled and he and his brother coached to the state meet had the race of their rather short racing careers. All four finished the race. Not one medaled individually, but the team that hadn't existed placed sixth.
"(Kenan) was huge in the race at state," Titus said. "Even my athletes said he was everywhere at state.
"It was the icing on the cake. That's the kind of person my brother is. He'd do anything to help someone out."