Cross country runners in South-Western City schools fought the odds when a levy cut their district’s funding, eliminating extracurricular activities but not their dedication

By Johanna Welling

Hope, fear and anticipation filled the air Aug. 4 at the Grove City Church of the Nazarene. Hundreds of students and school officials from South-Western City schools crowded the church to hear the results of the vote on a four-year, $8.3 million operating levy. The result, if unfavorable, could cause serious damage to the schools of the community.

The levy first failed in November 2008, which cut the district’s funding by $8 million. It failed again when it was placed on the May 2009 ballot. This third attempt could restore $4 million of the funds lost in May.

At about 9 p.m., the results were posted. Superintendant Bill Wise announced that the levy, once again, had been defeated. This time, by a margin of less than one percent. Students began to cry and tried to comfort each other, but the extremely close vote and the inevitable damage was now certain.

For the students who would choose to continue attending their schools, there would be no sports or extracurricular activities. No band, clubs, drama productions, or student council. The doors of the district’s four high schools, which include Grove City, Central Crossing, Franklin Heights and Westland, would open one hour before school started and be locked one hour after it ended. That’s it.

“This community is going to die,” Grove City football coach Matt Jordan said to Sports Illustrated. “That’s the big fear.”

The athletic directors and other officials worried that students would leave and the school system would fall apart, and that’s exactly what began to happen. Many athletes, especially those hopeful to play in college, began enrolling in other school districts where they could participate.

“Why should we stay if the community gives up on us?” said sophomore Jacob Green of Grove City High School to the Columbus Dispatch. He planned to play football in Washington Court House after the levy failed.

Some athletes, however, decided to stick it out and stay in the district, but that didn’t mean their fight was over. For senior Lance Gardner of Central Crossing and many of his cross country teammates who stayed, the real experience was just beginning. They weren’t going to stand around and do nothing. After all, they’re runners. It’s not what they do.

Up and running

Gardner and his friend senior Luke Boggs knew they wanted cross country to be a part of their last year of high school. After the levy failed in May and again in August, they realized the reality of the situation and didn’t hesitate to start brainstorming.

“We expected it to be close and were disappointed, but we knew that complaining and sulking wouldn’t get us anywhere,” said Gardner about the outcome of the vote. They decided to start their own club team; it would be organized, coached, and paid for by the runners and their parents. After some research, a few phone calls, and collecting commitments and money from interested students, team ROAM (Runners on a Mission) was born.

“Lance loves running. He has amazing dedication,” said sophomore Austin Alpeter of Hilliard Bradley High School, a close friend of Gardner who also runs cross country. “Being able to go out and make your own team? That’s amazing! What he did is just mind blowing for a kid his age.”

Getting the team started was no easy task.

“It took a good amount of work. We had to organize our own practices, keep the team together, organize team dinners, and figure out where we were going to race,” Gardner explained. Help from parents and other adults played a huge role in making everything run smoothly.

“We couldn’t do it without a ton of people. Tremayne [former Central Crossing cross country coach] gave me a plan for the workouts, Mrs. Bohanan [parent of former CCHS runner] chaperoned practices and gave us water, parents provided transportation, funds and team dinners, and Mr. and Mrs. Boggs [Luke’s parents] were absolutely tremendous with their help. They contacted all of the meet directors and got us into meets. They were awesome.”

Christy Boggs became the team contact person and was in charge of finding meets for team ROAM to run in.

“I just started calling around different invitationals- some would let us run, some wouldn’t. I kind of went on previous years and found seven meets,” she explained to ThisWeek Community Newspaper.

When it was just the runners, however, Gardner knew there needed to be leadership.

“It was tough because the leaders were a little afraid to take over too much because we didn’t want everyone to see us as bossy meany-heads. Towards the end of the season we found a nice rhythm of authority though and it worked out nicely.”

Off to the races

The nine boys and 12 girls of team ROAM were able to run in seven meets this past season. Many athletic directors were kind towards the team; they only had to pay for three invitationals and the rest were free.

Because the team wasn’t supported by a school, however, they were ineligible for the OHSAA postseason. This was especially frustrating for Gardner and Boggs, who were on the CCHS varsity team last year.

Boggs explained to ThisWeek, “We went to the regional as a team last year and our goal was to make it to state (as a team) this year. We won’t get that chance.”

During some of the races, the runners didn’t always have the full advantage other teams had.

At the Aug. 29 Pickerington Classic, ROAM runners were required to wear pink index cards pinned to their jerseys and were not allowed to cross the finish line. Consequently, they couldn’t receive official times or awards.

When the team ran at the Sept. 19 Cedarville Christian College Friendship Invitational, the ROAM boys won their race by more than 30 points. They were disappointed to later be told that they weren’t eligible for awards.

“I went to that race assuming we could win, but they never e-mailed be back and told me we couldn’t place. After the meet when we won, they told me we couldn’t win the meet. I think that was the worst for them,” Christy Boggs told ThisWeek.

The runners didn’t let any disappointments bring them down, however, because they had faced unfavorable situations before. Team ROAM had one of its most memorable shining moments at the Sept. 12 Zane Trace Invitational where both the boys and girls won the team plaque.

Throughout the season, Gardner and his teammates set goals, gained strength, speed, and set new PR’s (personal records) for themselves. Junior Tia Smith received the best female time of the season when she ran 21:31at the Ray Russel Invitational and freshman Brad Fields claimed the best male time with 17:23 at the Erin L. Nance Invitational. Needless to say, team ROAM’s success this season showed Central Ohio that one thing they hadn’t lost was their ability to perform.

The final stretch

For Gardner and his teammates, the season brought growth and lessons to be learned about themselves and how to be successful runners.

“We’re like a family now. I think everyone on our team would be willing to sacrifice a ton for anyone else. I hope everyone learned that you can accomplish more with a team. I also hope everyone learned that running is like life; you get out of it what you put into it. And we definitely put a lot into it this year,” he said.

What exactly was the goal of team ROAM?

“We called ourselves Runners On A Mission, but I think our mission was different for each person. Some people just joined the team because they didn’t have anything else to do, some did it for the social aspect, and some did it because they wanted to kick some buttocks. But no matter the mission, everyone worked hard and had fun. As a team I would say our goal was to provide the ultimate team atmosphere and work together to achieve more than we could have acting alone. We definitely did that,” Gardner explained.

ROAM definitely deserves credit for viewing the glass as half full. These athletes could have given up when their community did, but they chose to be bigger than that. They faced difficulty with hearts of champions.

“Adversity makes people stronger,” said Stacey Hoover, an Upper Arlington High School physical education teacher who ran cross country in high school and college. “It’s not always easy or fun.”

Organizing and following through with ROAM certainly wasn’t easy for Gardner or his teammates, but they certainly made it fun. If attitude is everything, Gardner’s optimism says it all.

“I love my team. Running is like life. When opportunity doesn’t knock, you build a door. Dream big, dream often!” he said. “Don’t let anything stop you from doing what you love! Be proactive!”

It takes a strong character and a passionate athlete to be entirely committed to the cause of fighting the odds, both of which certainly describe this senior who helped make a difference at Central Crossing this past fall.

When asked if he thought team ROAM had influenced the community, Gardner said, “Well I know we had an article or two written about us, but we didn’t make the team to influence the community. We made it for ourselves.” One might think these runners started the team to prove a point to the people who voted against their cause, but the only point they truly wanted to make was how much they love running.

From the beginning, it was about chasing their dreams as athletes and as a family. They accomplished their goals and created a legacy of self-determination to which others may aspire. Gardner was very clear in his answer. It was never about the community in the first place, but rather what they could do without the community.

Runners On A Mission? Mission accomplished.