The Keller girls cross country team won state last season, but coach Brian Zaring says the scant attention paid to the sport makes motivation a challenge. Courtesy
The Keller girls cross country team won state last season, but coach Brian Zaring says the scant attention paid to the sport makes motivation a challenge. Courtesy

High School Sports

North Texas is home to some of the best athletes you may never have heard of

By Randy Sachs

Special to the Star-Telegram

August 18, 2017 02:18 PM

They may be some of the most highly conditioned and successful athletes in North Texas, yet they train in almost total obscurity every day of the week.

Northeast Tarrant County has become a hotbed for girls cross country, yet these state-class athletes are running in the shadows of big-time high school football programs and competitive volleyball teams whose season is already underway.

The only limelight these runners seem to catch are the headlights from early morning commuters on the streets of their neighborhoods.

But these athletes do it for themselves, their schools and their cross country family.

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Keller is the reigning Class 6A state champion and ranked No. 2 in the nation in a preseason poll. The Lady Indians return all seven state meet runners and even have a solid move-in to bolster depth.

Southlake Carroll has finished as runners-up the last two years. Four years ago, Carroll captured the third state title of three in a row.

Also, Grapevine has been a state qualifier for the last three years and won a state title in 2015 while being runner-up the year prior. The Lady Mustangs were seventh last year.

Richland and Colleyville Heritage have also had strong showings and boast returning runners with state meet experience.

The biggest recognition is to set personal records and self-improvement. That’s the motivation for the right kind of kid.

Carroll cross country coach Justin Leonard

North Texas — also including Flower Mound Marcus and Lewisville Hebron — is the elite of girls cross country talent.

So, do these teams feel a bit left out of this new school year’s athletic chatter?

“Absolutely,” said Keller head coach Brian Zaring. “These kids work hard and the only confirmation you get is from within your team or school, and it’s hard to stay motivated.”

Mark Ashley, head coach at Richland, said there’s a reality check for runners, including his talented senior Binta Ka, who finished 14th at last year’s state meet.

“We do live in Texas and there’s not the hype and pep rallies that football and volleyball may get. The rewards are there. They just come differently. The payoff comes for Binta and those at the state meet.”

Grapevine’s Rick Miller said there’s no comparison to the attention received by the other sports.

“We don’t worry about that,” Miller said of his girls having a chip on their shoulder. “We want the kids to get the recognition they deserve, but it’s important that we have one another. We aren’t a pep rally sport or need cheerleaders — although they give us a great send-off for state. Why? Because we have each other. That’s what drives us each and every day.”

Summer XC practice is off to a great start!! pic.twitter.com/cEXx0DITiL

— Carroll XC (@CarrollCXC) June 6, 2017

With all of Carroll’s success, recognition has developed over time.

Justin Leonard, the Lady Dragons’ head coach, said the program’s growth and success makes people aware of what’s taking place on park courses most Saturdays this time of year.

“It’s not a glamorous sport. The kids know the expectation going in, though,” Leonard said. “The biggest recognition is to set personal records and self-improvement. That’s the motivation for the right kind of kid.”

It’s more than running on a track.

Imagine trying to sprint through a mall on a Saturday during the holiday shopping season while the tile is being replaced. It’s speed in a crowded environment with uncertain turf beneath you.

And … it’s running.

Ka may have summed up the appeal of cross country when deciding on the team’s state meet T-shirt slogan.

“Our sport is your sport’s punishment.”

So, why is there such a constant influx of new, talented runners filling the area schools? For example, Zaring said when he took over at Keller, there were 53 total runners. Now they have 137 boys and girls.

Leonard said his theory is based on youth athletics in this part of the county.

“I think it has a lot to do with kids playing soccer at a young age,” Leonard said. “So many are playing, and then they get to middle school and they’ve been playing for seven to eight years. Soccer is such a benefit for cross country with all the running. They decide they aren’t going to play soccer for whatever reason, but they’ve been running a lot.

“Plus, the area is growing and people are running.”