Two teams, one family: how Devils Lake Cross Country comes together as one unit
DEVILS LAKE – A September afternoon was anything but crisp in terms of the cooler temperatures one would expect during that time of year. But, of course, this was nothing new to the Devils Lake cross-country teams. Even if the 90-degree heat did not tell them, the lengthy interval workout certainly did.
Although Devils Lake has a boys’ and girls’ team, it would not seem as such if one were to watch them away from a meet. Sure, they competed in separate events. However, when it comes to practicing, riding the bus or simply hanging out, the two squads are anything but separate from one another.
Instead, the two teams are collectively fixated on the goal of improving together as one cohesive group.
“I am close with even the youngest seventh-graders, boys and girls,” senior team leader Kiya McLaurin said. “We are just very close and united as a team, and we get things done together. There is no real separation. When we are stretching, it is not girls on one side and boys on this side. It is all ages together. We all have inside jokes, and we like to work together. Even if someone has a bad day, we pick them up and we get them going for that.”
McLaurin’s role is to not simply be a mentor and captain for the girls’ team. Instead, McLaurin acts as the day-to-day leader for both squads. Once practice starts at 4:00 p.m., McLaurin leads the combined group with an 800-meter warmup. Next, McLaurin leads in dynamic stretching and finally walks her fellow athletes to meet with cross-country head coach Nick Kavli. There, Kavli will decide what the plan is for the day. Sometimes, the team will go through recovery or “fun” days, which can entail hide-and-seek, “Sharks and Minnows” or other games with a cross-country twist. On other days, the group will participate in more intense activities, including that of 10k intervals.
Nevertheless, practice is practice, and cross-country meets are cross-country meets. After COVID-19 brought a different twist to last year’s cross-country landscape regarding how many runners could compete, this year has been more toward the usual norm. For example, during Devils Lake’s recent involvement in the RM Stoudt Invitational on Sep. 25, more than 150 runners participated in the men’s and women’s 5,000-meter varsity event. This, of course, was after COVID-19 limited the pool to less than 100 runners per event last year.
To Kavli, the return to a more normal routine has been a blessing as he prepares both of his teams for the stretch run.
“It is nice to get back into a season that feels a lot more normal and just enjoying the sport of cross country,” Kavli said. “We have good leadership, and we have excellent hard workers. This is a grueling sport. It is mentally tough, and it is physically tough. These kids push each other and themselves extremely hard, and we do have some really tough workdays.”
Although each Firebird takes part in practice together, each athlete has a different individual goal. For some, it is about contending in the Eastern Dakota Conference (EDC) and state. For others, it is about running a mile or two without stopping.
Even still, the group practices together as one.
“It is just leveled off by ability, not by gender,” Kavli said. “Some of them can go six to seven miles, and some of them can go one or two. We are just mixed together in that sense. They have the same coaches. Some programs will have different coaches for each one, but we are not. We are a co-ed sport, essentially.”
Brady Goss, the boys’ team leader, believes both the boys and girls work better in conjunction with one another instead of working separately.
“We do work really well together,” Goss said. “We have a mixture of really good guys and really good girls. The slower guys and slower girls usually work well together pretty well, and the same for the faster guys and the faster girls.”
Both McLaurin and Goss believe they are in a stable spot regarding their production this season. The pair additionally strives to give the program enough drive to help it grow now and in the future.
“I want the numbers to go up, just to have people experience it,” McLaurin said. “It is not just about the running. It is more about the social aspect for me, coming and being able to talk to everybody and getting a good workout in and getting improvements on my own.”
“I really want the team to work harder,” Goss said. “We have a good set of guys and a good set of girls. If everyone works hard and puts their all into it, we can do really well.”
As his runners continue to practice and improve for the final part of the season, Kavli sees a united team under one banner. Instead of two separate teams, Kavli sees one determined family eager to help everyone put forth their best effort.
Regardless of the heat or the intensity of practice, the family always pushes through.
“I think it is shown in their actions,” Kavli said. “It stems back to their willingness to work hard, to follow the program, to be coachable and to pick it up even when they are tired in a race because they trust their coach to tell them what to do. To look out for one another and encourage one another. I think they are just determined, devoted and dedicated. The three Ds. Any one of those that captures that concept. They are here to work.”