BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — It was back in the spring, during track season, when Derek Roush went for a run with Traverse City Central distance runner Nicholas Tarsa.
"It was a longer run and I said, 'This is pretty fun. You guys do this often?'" Roush recalled. "He was like, 'Every day.' He said, 'If you like it, you should join cross country next fall.'"
That's what Roush, a transfer, decided to do. Now he's among more than 100 cross country runners at Central. There are 51 boys and 51 girls — the second consecutive season the total number has eclipsed 100.
"To have over 100 kids, and we don't have 1,500 kids here at Central, means 1 out of 15 kids is running cross country," Central boys coach John Lober said. "That's amazing."
While some sports are struggling with numbers, cross country is thriving. Not only in Traverse City, but across the state. In 2011-12, girls cross country set a record with 8,135 participants. That's up 15 percent since 2006-07. During that same time period, boys cross country participation shot up 6.1 percent.
When Lober and Don Lukens took over the cross country program in 1989, five boys showed up — and that was before the school split. He ended the season with 13.
Lober almost immediately started recruiting runners at the school.
"I talked to every boy who could walk and chew gum," he said. "The next year we were at 25.
"I'm big on recruiting. I talk to a lot of kids. All the kids I talk to don't come out. But I always say, 'Ask the kids that are out if they're having a good time. Go out and try it and see what you think. We're getting more and more kids out."
So is Lisa Taylor, the girls coach.
Not only are the kids coming out, but they're all competing.
"There's not one meet they can't run in," Taylor said. "That's one of the cool things about it. Nobody sits on the bench. There are no cuts, no tryouts. All they have to do is come everyday and give it their best."
That can be appealing. Ask Todd Endresen, whose son Alex is a first-time runner on the boys team.
"The reason Alex likes the sport, and the reason I like it as a parent, is that it can accommodate a lot of kids," he said. "Kids get to compete individually, improve individually, and be part of a team. Unlike other sports, and I'm not anti other sports, but there are sports where kids will put in hours and hours of practice time and then ride the bench as opposed to this, where every kid gets to compete and contribute in some way.
"Alex was running the 5K in about 25 minutes and change at the beginning of the season and he's already got it below 20 minutes. That's what I'm talking about. If this was a sport where there were cuts at the beginning of the season, he probably would not have made the team."
Alex Endresen played soccer and tried pole vaulting and sprinting before deciding on distance running.
"I like it from the standpoint that you can see your results as you go, whereas in other sports it's very subjective as to whether you're improving or not," he said. "It's black and white."
And how you perform is strictly up to you.
"It's about how much work you put in beforehand," Endresen said. "It shows on race day."
In Endresen's case, the training has paid off.
"When you see your time dropping it keeps you motivated to continue training hard," he said.
Roush has seen his 5K time drop, too.
"I'm constantly getting faster," he said. "I've dropped three minutes. I'm almost in the 18s. I never saw myself as a runner before. Now, I can't see myself without running."
Cross country is a sport where the runners determine the lineup, based on their times.
"It's a great sport to coach because of that," Taylor said.
"You determine your own fate," Lober added.
But most will not make the top seven for regionals, which are Saturday, or the state meet if the teams qualify.
That's not always the overriding factor, though, why a lot of them come out.
"I can tell the girls, 'We're looking at our 17th straight year of going to the state meet. We've got 12 top 10 finishes. We've got eight top 4 finishes. We've won a state championship. We've got two runners-up,'" Taylor said. "All they hear is, "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.'
"They kind of care, but not really. It's more about the friendships and goal setting, the idea of being a part of something."
The social aspects — developing friendships and camaraderie — can not be understated.
"I came from another school," sophomore Graceanne Tarsa said. "When you come into this program you instantly have a ton of new friends. So I think that was part of it. I wanted to know more people — and I like running."
"If you're having a bad day, or anything happens to you, you can always rely on your cross country girls," freshman Jessica Budz said. "It's so positive. There's never any negativity or drama. The team has such a strong bond. I think that's why we're so successful."
The girls and boys are both ranked No. 8 in Division 1.
Junior Nate Reicha remembers when he joined the team as a freshman after previously attending a charter school.
"I was immediately accepted by the team," he said. "That was really powerful, coming in and already having friends and a sense of security."
Reicha now says cross country has changed his life.
"My life revolves around my commitment to cross country, healthy eating, training every single day," he said.
That includes weekends when the coaches aren't around.
"We have a group that meets," he said. "It's a brotherhood. We do so much together. I'm always with somebody on the team, whether it be training or going out to breakfast after a morning run in the summer."
Sophomore Madison Ostergren is a downhill skier who picked up cross country as a cross training sport. Now she's hooked. She said it's helped her skiing and allowed her to make "great friends."
"You're treated as family on this team," she said.
It helps, too, that Central has enjoyed repeated success at the state level with experienced and long-tenured coaches. Lober and Lukens are in their 24th year, Taylor is in her 18th.
"People know what our programs are about," Taylor said. "They know how we coach. They know we're fair. They know we know our sport. They know they're coming into a program with a plan and a mission."
And no matter the ability, everyone is "important," Lober said.
"Anybody who can go out and run a 5K and spill their guts — there are no timeouts — you deserve the respect of everybody," he said. "You watch these kids and they're working their tails off. All you've got to do is try it and you'll know what I'm talking about."