When most folks in Madison County think of the best athletes to come from the area, they usually name the likes of Dominique Hawkins, Damien Harris, Larry Warford, and some other names which come up in the conversation. What most do not realize is these top athletes all have come from the top sports of basketball and football.
What if I told you that a cross country program out of Richmond has produced more state champions than all of those Madison County legends combined.
Average sports fans usually group cross country and track together as one sport because of the running aspect, but track and cross country are in fact two different sports. Track runners use cross country for distance training as cross country takes place in the fall while track and field is in the spring.
Enter James Mutuse; a teacher and an ambassador at Madison Central for the cross country and track programs. Mutuse is a lifetime runner, getting his schooling at EKU paid for by running cross country. Mutuse was a GA and volunteer assistant at EKU from 2003-2005 for the cross country and track teams. After some successful years helping coach as an assistant at EKU from 2005-2009, Mutuse came to Madison Central in 2010 and immediately got involved in coaching for both cross country and track teams.
Mutuse is not currently coaching the cross country program at Madison Central, but his passion and involvement for the program is still there. Currently, the cross country head coaching position at Central has been sitting open for awhile now. Mutuse knows this is a position that needs to be filled as soon as possible with a caring coach, as summer running is important for development in cross country races in the fall.
“The cross country team needs a dedicated coach. Somebody who isn’t going to just take the position as a job since its pays little. It needs someone who is really dedicated and has a heart for the kids, because the first thing that matters is the kids. Student athletes are the priority. If you coach cross country and want to work from August to November, then this isn’t the job for you. Preparation is done during the summer time and during track season. We need coaches who want to build and stick around whether the programs have good athletes or bad athletes”, said Mutuse.
A current coaching void that eventually will be filled isn’t the only solution. Cross country needs a better foundation in Madison County. The high school programs need help from elementary and middle school programs so future runners can develop earlier.
“We are one of the biggest counties in the state without fundamental youth running programs. For cross country to succeed at the high school level, they have to start younger. I know there’s tons of running interest locally, because lots of elementary schools bring kids over to the parks (and recreation) 5k in September, and they have a great time. To me, I think Madison County school programs can tap into that, knowing that there are a lot of kids interested in running”, said Mutuse.
Middle school cross country programs at local middle schools are currently non-existent. There are track programs in the spring and this is where most people get cross country and track confused. Lots of people falsely believe that middle school track programs help cross country programs.
“At Madison Central, the track program should help the track program, said Mutuse. Cross country is a different animal, so middle schools and even elementary schools need to create cross country feeder programs to help feed into other schools”.
With the creation of elementary school cross country programs, some runners would stay and some runners would go, but the ones who stay become super competitive in the middle school ranks, which could turn into a superstar running career by the time they enter high school.
There is one more important factor that could dramatically improve the cross country experience for local runners according to Mutuse. That idea is having some land set aside for the creation of a cross country training facility.
“The facility would be at minimum two or three miles, Mutuse said. We would be able to have a path to maneuver around that is at least one mile long for training purposes. If we want a facility that could host cross country meets, it should be a bit bigger”.
It is easy to see Mutuse’s passion for cross country coming from his ideas of how the sport could improve. There is only so much new change that can be done to improve running locally though. Excitement needs to be built from within also, by showcasing success of previous runners. Madison Central’s cross country programs have had a great stretch in the past decade of state championship runners.
“We as a community need to put some of these kids on a pedestal like we would do with football or basketball athletes. Ciara O’Shea grew so much as a runner in her time at Central and won so many accolades and state championships, but really there was minimal coverage of her winning besides the Richmond Register and WBON’s coverage having her in for an interview. Outside of that, Ciara would win state and she would ride back into Richmond like nothing ever happened. If the basketball team won state or even won the region tournament, they have the police line up and escort them back into town”, Mutuse claimed. “That kind of excitement as a cross country superstar you would have when being met at Exit 90 by Richmond Police and KSP to be escorted back into town would make you feel like you are the top guy, because currently you only see this with football or big sports programs. It can help our program so much if we could also have our cross country kids be recognized”.
If anything, Mutuse can point out some of these biases towards certain sports, since he attends most, if not all other sporting events at Madison Central. Whether its football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, or any other sport, chances are that Mutuse is in the stands or chatting it up with his students or colleagues. Mutuse gave another great example of how he feels cross country runners are not as recognized for their athletics abilities as other sports.
“Dominique Hawkins got his own day in Madison County for helping Madison Central’s basketball team win the 2013 state title, which is great because he helped the program so much. Now, Brennan Fields won the state tournament in 2014 for cross country, and besides a few of us cross country nerds and the media here in town, nobody really knows that. Connor O’Shea won a state title in cross county too. Ciara O’Shea won 5 cross country state championships. I ask many students about her at school, and many only knew her as the girl who runs everywhere. If Ciara O’Shea was the schools quarterback, then I bet everyone in the school would have known more about how good of a runner she was”.
Showing these top tier runners from Richmond would certainly help with recruiting more young athletes to the program. Besides some banners hanging in the gym, the recognition for these state championships isn’t what it would be for other sports. If the football team won state there would be a celebration and pep rally during school, but there was no pep rally for any of the runners.
Aside from changing people’s perspectives on how athletes should be celebrated here, the perception on running and joining the cross country team also needs to be changed into more of a positive.
“Besides wrestling, cross country is the most grueling sport. When that starting gun goes off in cross country, you are on your own for the whole race, which takes a lot. Some coaches will not take runners later in the fall due to being out of shape, but I believe you build the program by the numbers. Although that runner may not be the guy this year or even next year, he could be a state contender in a few years with proper training”.
Mutuse used himself as an example when talking about how most runners and parents of runners just want to see instant results from cross country,
“You do not have to run fast to be good a good runner. When I was an athlete, I was not always the fastest in the race, but I was always there at the top with the big boys. I did not get a world record or run a sensational time, but everyone I ran with knew that James Mutuse had raced me”.
The back of Mutuse’s shirt he wore during the interview included the “three F’s” which stand for food-fluids-fast. These principles are key in being a successful runner in general. With Mutuse’s knowledge and recommendations about how cross country could blossom in Madison County, the sport really could take off. It takes numbers as Mutuse said not only for a successful program but for a successful support system.
Cross Country has a future in this county. There will be more state championship runners in the future. To maintain that success though, Mutuse’s ideas will need to be put into action sooner rather than later.