2020 was the cross country season that almost didn’t happen. But even a pandemic couldn’t slow the Lakota West High School Varsity Boys Cross Country team. The disappointments due to Covid-19 only fueled them for a spectacular first place finish in Division 1 at the Ohio High School Athletic Association State Championships and fourth place win at the USA Meet of Champions. A team of ultra-motivated senior athletes and a crew of dedicated coaches made their dream a goal and then a reality with the focus, training and hearts of champions.
The Firebirds’ dream was first ignited when the boys were in eighth grade and grew to a blaze leading into this year’s season. It sparked with a frustrating loss to a local team that wears green.
“We lost to Mason at eighth grade GMCs [Greater Miami Conference championships] and have not gotten over that,” says team member Zach Beneteau.
“A lot of us ran junior high cross country,” explains runner Cole Cronk. “Some people took a break and went to soccer the first few years of high school, but we came back together for this season.”
“I think the drive really started at last year’s regional meet, when we placed seventh out of the 15 teams there,” adds teammate Sergio Negroe. “We started to think if we could get a team going and everyone buys in, we could really do this and make it to the state championships.”
Coaches Sean Hart, Lindsay Buck, Chris Drumm, Randy Doyle, Adam Erickson and Julia Huston knew early on that this team was going places.
“In 30 plus years of coaching, I’ve never had a group that is this dedicated and this self-driven,” says Head Coach Sean Hart. “What do we do with them? You get out of their way!
“As the head coach this year, I was blessed with the ultimate group of boys, but also a lot of good adults around them: parents, teachers, coaches,” he says.
“I can’t give the boys enough credit,” continues Coach Hart. “There are so many good things to say about each one of them, but it’s the whole team.”
When spring track and soccer seasons were cancelled, the boys used the extra time as an opportunity. Even though the season was in question, they adjusted to Covid conditions and kept training.
“We saw this as an opportunity to work harder earlier in the season,” says runner Kaleb Martin. “We were doing a lot more than we did the previous year…some of the top guys here ran 60-70 miles a week.”
“Most of us were doing 4-hour practices every morning and some nights doing doubles. Some of the other teams weren’t training, and that motivated us even more,” shares Zach Beneteau.
The committed runners researched, studied and watched hours of film to prepare. They not only ran, but also practiced yoga, biked, cross-trained, lifted weights, swam and took a training trip to Georgia. They even formed a book club under the leadership of Coach Hart. Together, they assembled a winning strategy: train hard, eat right and be the best team they could be.
“Those other parts of training we added this year really put us above the other competitors,” says Cole. “We were hanging out a lot more which really created the type of bond we have. Everyone was putting forth the effort, giving everything they had for everyone else,” he says.
“This is my first year of ever running cross country,” adds teammate Michael Lane. “I was really surprised by the community with all of my teammates. This is the closest I’ve ever been to anybody…I think we are all best friends at this point.”
On state race day in Obetz, the team was nervous but confident. They are quick to recognize and rely on the strengths of one another in a true testament to their team effort. Grabbing the state championship was an unforgettable moment.
“We never really doubted that we would get first. We didn’t even have to have our best day—if we just had a good day, we knew we’d win,” shares runner Easton Crowther.
“At the very end there was a pretty big hill,” team member Zach Plotkin says. “During the race, that’s where things changed for me. I got really tired and then got passed by a lot of people. But Sergio passed 28 kids the last mile! That was a big thing for us to win the meet.”
Competitor Nathan Burns shares about the winning moment.
“I remember the excitement of knowing that it all paid off. It’s hard to describe—something I’ll never forget,” he says.
The team continued the season with an impressive fourth place finish at the USA Meet of Champions, a regional competition between the country’s top teams.
All of the graduating athletes plan to keep running in the future, some of them competing at the collegiate level, others in a less demanding club setting. Their legacy is a love of the sport.
“Whether I run with a team or just by myself, I plan on running,” says Michael.
“Running is very good for mental health. Running every day is a natural de-stressor. It relaxes you and it’s fun,” says Zach Beneteau.
The 2020 varsity team is an inspiration, but the record-breaking boys aren’t done winning yet.
“Stay tuned for track!” proclaims Zach Plotkin with a smile and a nod.
Keep your eyes on the finish line this spring, because there’s more to come from these motivated Firebirds.