• Shawn Garrison: Wildcats' team focus breaks up reporter's monotony

  • My profession is often ruled by monotony. When you cover high school sports year-round, you see so many homecomings, “rivalry games,” senior nights and postseason triumphs and heartbreaks that it all blurs together.

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  • My profession is often ruled by monotony. When you cover high school sports year-round, you see so many homecomings, “rivalry games,” senior nights and postseason triumphs and heartbreaks that it all blurs together.
    But there are also occasional moments and teams that remind me why I got into this business. The Blue Springs boys cross country team provided that sort of affirmation at Saturday’s Missouri State Championships in Jefferson City.
    I first got to know the members of the Wildcat squad earlier this fall while working on a feature story on the state’s No. 1-ranked team. Coach Frank Gallick talked about how guys like senior Simon Belete and sophomore Stephen Mugeche sat down last spring during track and field season and realized a state cross country championship could be within reach come fall.
    For much of the year, it looked like the Cats were destined to take home the big prize as they dominated meet after meet and started talking about being the first Blue Springs team to win conference, district, sectional and state titles.
    And in the seconds immediately following Saturday’s race, it appeared they’d made good on those aspirations after Belete snared the individual championship and Mugeche and senior James Barnett joined him on the all-state podium with fourth- and 10th-place finishes, respectively.
    Tears streamed down Gallick’s face as he greeted each runner at the finish line. He’d tried to calculate the team scores throughout the meet. With three runners in the top 10 and junior Devon Sesler just missing the all-state cut with a 27th-place tally, he thought surely they’d leave with a first-place plaque.
    Moments later, they found out they were three points shy of St. Louis University High School, and the Blue Springs euphoria suddenly went mute.
    I tried to hang around the Wildcat tent at a safe distance because I wanted to see how each runner reacted to the Tilt-a-Whirl of emotions. What I saw next is what endeared this team to me.
    Belete, who minutes earlier claimed undisputed best-runner-in-Missouri status and capped maybe the best individual season in school history, took a seat on the ground with his arms locked around his knees. His face, which seconds before was filled with so much joy, now wore a blank expression. He stared off in the distance as his eyes grew misty.
    It’s worth noting that cross country is largely considered an individual sport. Yes, team scores are kept. But really, individual achievement is the focus of most meets.
    The Wildcats are an exception.
    “We wanted first,” Belete said. “That’s just our team. We want to win. And when we don’t win, we’re not going to be happy.”
    Here you had a kid who accomplished something a sliver of a fraction of high school athletes even have a chance of doing, and he could have cared less. This was a lot more than paying lip-service to the all-about-the-team cliché.
    Page 2 of 2 - A few minutes later, I talked to Barnett and he choked back tears as he described what his teammates meant to him.
    “Previously I’ve called it a family,” Barnett said, “and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
    Mugeche, who established himself as one of the front-runners for the 2013 title with the second-best underclassman finish in Class 4, gushed about Belete like a big brother rather than focus on his own accomplishment.
    “Simon was just going,” Mugeche said. “He wanted this title and so he went out and just took care of it.”
    I had hoped to see a Blue Springs state championship Saturday. Believe it or not, high schoolers and coaches are a lot easier to interview when they haven’t just had their hearts crushed.
    But what I saw instead was even more unique. I can’t think of too many teams that seemed more invested in each other than the 2012 Blue Springs cross country team.
    I’m accustomed to redundancy, but the Wildcats stood out. And state title or not, they made my job a lot more enjoyable.

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