By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — There’s a certain paradox to running cross-country. It’s a deeply personal, individual sport, but it’s crucial for teammates to consider each other, too.
At Niskayuna High School, cross-country coaches John Sharkey and Jason DeRocco have embraced that apparent conflict to create a team that’s fit, fast, and well-rounded — and hopefully not just for the season, but for a lifetime.
When it comes to promoting team spirit, the coaches’ philosophy revolves around keeping all the runners together whenever possible, including all levels and both boys’ and girls’ teams. Technically, Sharkey is the girls’ coach and DeRocco is the boys’ coach, but they usually work as a pair.
“All of our events are together,” Sharkey said. Even when traveling to invitational meets, the two coaches try to attend the same ones.
Of course, while racing, the teams compete in their own classifications: boys’ and girls’ freshmen, junior varsity and varsity. They occasionally split during practices to keep things interesting, but on a typical day, they warm up, stretch and train together.
And by nature of the sport, everybody works for the same amount of time at every practice and most meets.
“Nobody sits on the bench in cross-country,” Sharkey said.
The coaches’ strategy is meant to impart a sense of camaraderie, and it seems to work.
Joe Gunderson, a senior, joined the team as a freshman. He moved to Niskayuna from Arizona the summer before he started high school; he had never participated in a sport before. Gunderson said the team spirit on the NHS cross-country team helped him stick with it.
“Running doesn’t seem that exciting on its own,” he said. But when he started training with Sharkey and DeRocco, he realized that “Maybe there’s more to cross-country than running and getting tired.”
Now, the energy of his teammates helps him dig deep and race hard, and he returns the favor.
“When you’re at a meet, you race together,” he said. “There’s that heightened desire to shout your lungs out when someone’s crossing the finish line.”
The benefits of having a close-knit group of teammates extend beyond meets and practices. Freshman Rebecca Cropsey joined the high school cross-country team in seventh grade, at the youngest age she could.
The friends she’s made helped her transition smoothly to the high school.
“It helps to be on a sports team and know older people in school,” she said. “You can ask them for help.”
And she often does ask for help, especially in her geometry class, where she’s one of just five freshmen. Because of her running experience, the older students don’t intimidate her.
“It’s nice to have people to talk to of both genders because you make more friends that way,” Cropsey said.
Sharkey said he’s seen the group’s social life grow to every level of the high school experience.
“We’ve had more prom dates from this sport than most people can shake a stick at,” he said with a laugh.
The coaches hope being members of a strong team inspires their athletes to become introspective and self-motivated about their running abilities. Before one of the first practices at the end of August, the coaches met with all the runners and lectured them on the importance of personal goal-setting.
“Your best effort feels the best,” DeRocco said at the meeting. “Have a standard. If you don’t hit it on a certain day, it’s not the end of the world, people.”
Focusing on incremental improvements makes the sport enjoyable for the less-advanced members of the team. Sharkey said he often asks himself how he can make sure the slowest runners can still enjoy the experience and continue with the sport for a lifetime.
Sharkey has a huge reason for encouraging his runners to stick with it after graduation: He credits his own running, which began in high school, with saving his life. During one run, he began to feel a strange sensation in his hands and stopped, which is something he rarely does. He went to the doctor and discovered a blocked artery, which had to be quickly repaired.
Unsurprisingly, given that experience, the coaches adamantly emphasize health, including eating and sleeping well. All the cross-country runners are encouraged to keep nutritional diaries so they can learn which foods energize them, and when the best times are to eat before a practice or meet. Sharkey acknowledged that the coaches could provide strict guidelines, but said it was more valuable to let the team figure it out on their own.
“Nobody’s going to do that for you in college,” he said.
A sense of personal responsibility carries over into the athletes’ academic lives, too.
“We’ve been a scholar-athlete team the whole time I’ve been coaching,” Sharkey said. To earn that classification, a sport’s entire varsity team has to maintain grade point averages of 90 or better.
“They focus on a lot on grades and nutrition,” junior Veronica Liu said. “It helps us all throughout the year. It really helps me manage my time.”
Cropsey said she’s taken the coaches’ message to heart, and it’s made her a much stronger runner.
“When I started out I was not nearly as fast as I am now,” she said. “I’ve learned that if you don’t take responsibility, you won’t get any better, and it’s not the coaches’ fault, it’s your own.”