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Uncertainty, Adversity & Triumph In A COVID-19 Girls Cross Country Season

Winnebago High School Athletics

For the first time in over 20 years, cross country coaches Janet and Joe Erb were nowhere to be seen at the regional meet for the Winnebago High School girls team. Then again, some of their runners weren’t there either.

Just days before regionals, members of the team and coaching staff came in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Cross Country was one of the few high school sports to have a semi-normal season this fall. Although protocols had been in place -- races were smaller and their season schedule had been altered -- Janet said this was the first time the virus directly impacted the team.

“Thank goodness none of us actually ever had any symptoms,” she said.

The Erbs have two daughters on the team who also had to quarantine. Joe said they had to find a way to watch the race from home.

“We had one of our runners -- her parents -- put on -- had Facebook Live. And so the younger sister, who happens to be one of my students, was recording for us,” he said.

It was regionals, and three of their Top-5 runners were in quarantine. That means runners who wouldn’t have raced, got thrust into a crucial spot with the season in the balance.

Sophia Martino is a junior on the team. She’s normally the seventh runner but had to move into a faster flight. Plus, she has spent the year rehabbing a dislocated kneecap, which has slowed her down.

“It was very weird. And I was a lot more responsibility. I had to step up from being the seventh runner to being the fourth runner,” said Martino.

Joe said seniors who thought their career was over got one last chance to run.

“Our ninth girl was a freshman; she was 16th in the regional. She hasn't gotten to run varsity all year because she's got these other teammates. And I kept telling her, ‘Listen, you're a varsity runner,’” he said. 

The Winnebago girls still won regionals with their senior leader, Natalia Martino, running away with first place.

Joe said of all his years as a coach, this was the meet that made him sit back and say “Wow.”

“I think the older I get the more I think these are the types of things that you carry with you in life,” he said. “Those kids, when called upon, stepped up and were able to perform well because they prepared well all season.”

The IHSA canceled the cross country state tournament. So, no matter how fast they were, the Winnebago girls would never have a shot to repeat as state champions. But they still had sectionals -- the final official race of the year -- to defend their title.

And, with all of their runners back from quarantine, Janet said they were dominant.

“We actually perfect-scored the meet,” she said.

She said it’s rare for a team to get a perfect score in any meet, let alone a sectional. The three Top-5 girls got out of quarantine that morning and all finished in the Top-10. They had six girls awarded All-Sectional.

Sophia Martino said it felt different this year.

“Sectionals was obviously a bigger deal than last year, but it also felt really weird,” she said.

And she said the staggered, “flighted races” -- in place because of COVID-19 to avoid packs of runners racing shoulder-to-shoulder -- felt almost lonely at times.

She often found herself running a race with maybe one teammate, but sometimes by herself. With no one to race against, the mental side of running was even more vital.

“You still have to have the mentality of being a front runner or be motivated enough to compete your hardest,” said Martino.

Even though sectionals were the last official IHSA race, the ShaZam Racing company invited top teams to participate in its version of a “state” meet.

Joe and Janet got to watch the team, but as parents instead of coaches. Not every elite team came, but it did let them test themselves against tougher competition. Martino said the race went smoothly, she finished second in her flight, behind only a teammate -- and her team won the unofficial championship. 

Overall, Janet said she was constantly impressed by the composure her team showed in an unprecedented season no one was sure would happen, let alone finish.

“They could have easily been, ‘Hey, we should be state champs and we didn't get an official state meet.’ And then, you know, [be] disappointed the whole time, use excuses, but they just said ‘We're gonna make the best of whatever we have,’” she said.

Runners had their track season canceled in the spring. So, the phrase “Run every race like it’s your last” felt real and urgent in a way it might not have pre-pandemic.

Group experiences and camaraderie are tough to come by during COVID-19, so Joe said he thought the season bonded the team in a special way, beyond running. And even though they don’t have the trophy to prove it, he’s confident they would have been state champs.

As Martino put it, “Don't take it for granted. Because you never know what might happen. You might get injured, or you might have a worldwide pandemic.”

Plenty of Illinois student-athletes hoped cross country and golf finishing might mean winter sports could go on as well. But with COVID numbers continuing to rise across the state and increasing mitigation measures in place, it’s uncertain if those athletes will suit up at all.