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Cross country coach goes the distance amid pandemic

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Goddard cross country team after an event in 2019. Top row, from left: Alexander Lara, Josh Theimer, Michael Young, Julian Quintero, Austin Ramey, Julio Flores, Nick Fox, Daniel Montoya and Jonathan Smith. Bottom row, from left: Kayla Theimer, Morgan Waltmire, Allyson Lara, Madeline Crouchman and Valeria Martinez. (File Photo)

By Zac Alfers
Special to RDR Sports

In a sport like cross country, one would think social-distancing guidelines would not dramatically affect the athletes who are running 3-mile races with the intent of putting as much distance as possible between themselves and their competitors.

This could not be further from the truth and the Goddard High School cross country team is a testament to that fact as they continue to face the same challenges that have plagued our entire country since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Goddard cross country head coach Eric Helmstetler. (File Photo)

Last season, head coach Eric Helmstetler had 15 athletes competing for him and will enter this year with three returning varsity boys, one returning varsity girl and two eighth grade runners, a significant decrease.

Helmstetler also works as a freshman biology teacher at Goddard and on a typical year, he will recruit much of his team during orientation, as incoming high schoolers flood the campus and scour the halls to find an extracurricular activity to be a part of.

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Unable to hold its traditional recruiting event, the team’s numbers have dwindled, but the returning athletes remain focused on preparing for next season. The GHS cross country team is currently working out together three times a week and practices typically range from 45 minutes to two hours long.

A championship-caliber program is one that can deal with adversity and Helmstetler has praised his team, athletes and parents alike, for their flexibility during this unusual year. Whether it be athletes having to wear masks while working out or parents being forced to deal with rescheduled practices or site changes, the team continues to show its resilience.

“I’m really glad to be able to work with the kids that I have, and the parents are awesome,” said Helmstetler. “There has been a lot of adjusting. We are trying to follow all the guidelines and do all the things we can to move into the next phase. Hopefully, we will be able to start running without masks soon.”

Helmstetler grew up playing football, basketball and competed in track and field as a kid and stumbled upon distance running by chance. The previous cross country coach was forced to walk away from the team in the middle of the season, which left a coaching vacancy that needed to be filled immediately. As a hungry and driven young professional with no other commitments at the time, he decided to volunteer.

Helmstetler was always an outdoors person and enjoys hunting, fishing and hiking, so him falling into cross country was the perfect match. Seven years later, Helmstetler’s name has become synonymous with the Goddard High School cross country program.

Despite having just six athletes on this year’s team, Helmstetler’s expectations remain high. The returners know what kind of work it takes to be a top 10 runner in the district and that is where the bar is currently being set as they prepare for one of the most bizarre sports seasons in history.

Smaller meets in years past usually attract somewhere between 300 to 400 athletes but the landscape of this season is going to be drastically different with meets being limited to just 100 people total, which includes athletes, coaches, volunteers; everybody.

Teams will also not be allowed to race against other squads but instead, will only be able to run with athletes from their same school.

With the team being cooped up for so long, the kids are looking for excuses to be outside and for them, the cross country season couldn’t come fast enough.