Every Monday after a meet, Visitation girls’ cross-country coach Jeff Fink gathers the Blazers runners inside the entrance of Mary O’ Foley Athletic Center.
Some girls sit, some lie down, tired from their workout that concluded just minutes earlier. All are focused on Fink, standing in front, and what he’s going to say next.
His hands are full of papers, which contain the results of the previous weekend’s meet. Before practice, Fink compared each runner’s times with previous finishes and highlights any athlete’s personal bests. One by one, he calls up runners by name who achieved various accomplishments, including a course personal best, a best first- or second-mile split, highest overall finish or a personal-best time.
When a runner hears her name, she walks to the front of the group and picks out a piece of candy, while teammates applaud and cheer.
It is a time-consuming process for Fink, but it’s a part of the week he loves.
“It is not work to me,” said the first-year head coach who spent 11 years as an assistant. “I want everyone to know that they are valued, and what we care about most is people improving.”
After a meet Sept. 24, 13 Visitation runners earned a piece of candy, reflecting improvement each week from the varsity through the JV team and down. The Blazers hope to achieve a program first this season by reaching the state meet.
At the Tri-Metro Jamboree on Aug. 31, the Blazers recorded a perfect score — placing all five of their varsity runners in spots one through five — and made conference history.
Eighth-grader Margaret Dalseth finished first, followed by junior MaryKate Schoonover in second, freshman Lauren Kern and Ellie McConville in third and fourth, and sophomore Nina Reamer placing fifth.
Moments after the race, no one from Visitation realized their feat was a first in any Tri-Metro Conference meet. After the reality set in, Schoonover said she still couldn’t believe it.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow. That can even happen?’ ” she said. “I thought it was a myth and didn’t know teams could even do that. Then for it to be my team that did, that was exciting.”
Schoonover said what makes this year different from past seasons is how close her teammates are as friends.
The sense of unity has made the transition to varsity easier for young runners. Kern, McConville and Dalseth, still in middle school, hold three of its five top spots.
“I wasn’t on the team last year,” Dalseth said. “But everyone has been great at including me and pushing me to improve my times. This is a group that supports everyone.”
Schoonover, the oldest varsity Visitation runner at the Tri-Metro Jamboree, uses the lessons she learned from past Blazers runners to help her guide the new crop of young athletes. Being a team leader is a task she has fully embraced.
“It is really an honor,” Schoonover said. “So many people older than me were such great role models and now it is so cool for me to be that for someone else.”
If the Blazers achieve their state-meet goal, Fink will have to buy a lot more pieces of candy.