They came from the beautiful, remote Potomac Highlands, the southern coalfields, the river towns, and the Eastern Panhandle (nearly a six-hour drive) to compete in the West Virginia State Cross- Country Championship on the campus of Cabell-Midland High School, located near Huntington.
Midland Coach Chris Parsons, who has guided the Knights to eight AAA State Championships, is the master mind behind conducting one of the most athlete-friendly meets that I have ever witnessed. This year’s team may have been the former Marshall University runner’s best team yet. Led by Jacob Burcham, they destroyed the field, averaging 16:06 per mile on the hilly, twisting course. The senior ran an amazing time of 14:58.04. With a PR in track of 4:02.79 in the mile, Burcham is one of the most highly recruited runners in the country; unfortunately, he will have to leave his native state to compete on the Division I level, since both West Virginia University and Marshall University have dropped their men’s track programs.
The meet was a cross-country fan’s dream to watch. An announcer kept the spectators informed by giving split times and places of the leading runners throughout each race. As the athletes entered the football stadium and covered the last two hundred meters to the finish line, their names and schools were given. If a record time was a possibility, the meet announcer cheered them home. St. Mary’s senior, Maggie Drazba, joined Burcham in the record books, completing the course in a tremendous time of 17:17.89. As the spectators were updated of the record pace of these two runners, wild cheering accompanied them throughout their races.
The dedicated course that is cared for year round was designed to benefit not only the runners, but also the fans. The harriers crossed one area six times, allowing everyone to see a great deal of the race from a single vantage point. Leaving nothing to chance, Parsons made sure that everyone who wanted to get to that point from the stadium could do so. A path with steps and handrails had been constructed up the hill.
After watching the highly organized meet, the best was yet to come. This writer has attended hundreds of meets over the course of his career, but he has never witnessed a more spectacular awards ceremony anywhere. To give the reader a better idea of the magnitude of this part of the day, over $7,000 was spent on recognition of the runners. Following the completion of the AA-A, then the AAA races, fans, coaches, and athletes were directed to the high school gym where the atmosphere was electric with excitement. Greeted by rock music blasting from a state-of-the-art sound system, roving spotlights, fan cams, loud cheers, and a video shown on two huge screens of the races that had JUST BEEN COMPLETED JUST MINUTES EARLIER, the capacity crowd went wild. The top ten runners in each race were led into the darkened arena by two American flag bearers. They were highlighted with spotlights and seated in the middle of the floor. Following the introductions of state officials, each runner was introduced as they emerged from a tent into a spotlight and the thunderous cheers of fans. As they accepted their plaques, the noise continued. Team awards were presented, using the same format. As these outstanding runners stood proudly on the awards platform, anyone who didn’t have chills and maybe even a tear in their eye had not seized this special moment.
Congratulations to the meet manager, Chris Parsons, and all those who worked so hard to make this one of the most special days in the lives of every Mountain State runner, parent, and fan who were lucky enough to attend the great event.
As I drove back to my home, many thoughts crossed my mind. What a momentous day it had been for every athlete who had travelled as many as six hours on Friday to get to Cabell County! The runners attend high schools in counties where it might take an hour to reach their homes, following practice. Some attend high schools with 1800 students, and others live in counties with a total population of 6,000. Regardless of their background or where they placed in the meet, every runner from this beautiful, friendly state left Cabell-Midland High School with an experience that they will never forget, because, on this day, they were the most special people in the State of West Virginia. Thank you, Coach Parsons, for making that possible.
Yours in track,