Frankfort boys' cross country team earns state championship
By Chapin Jewell
At the finish line of the West Virginia class AA cross-country championships on Saturday, the first five runners came across. In first place, Fairmont Senior, in second and third place, Winfield, in fourth place Fairmont Senior again, and in fifth place, Elkins. Gulp. Where’s Frankfort, the favorite to win the team title?
Then they appeared, that Blue Wave we have come to expect. In sixth, seventh, and eighth place all in a row came Frankfort’s Xander Shoemake, Anthony Sanders, and Peyton Slider. A little later, in 18th and 19th place, came Christian Cimaglia and Landyn Sell. Just behind in 22nd place was Kent Niland. Then came Frankfort’s Aiden Sensabuagh in 49th place to finish out the Falcons’ Blue Wave.
That’s three runners in the top 10, five runners in the top 20, and six runners in the top 25, an astounding race for the Columbia Blue and Silver-clad harriers from Frankfort.
But was it enough? Despite knowing they had run the race of their lives, still, the final scores needed tallied and on the grounds of Cabell Midland High School Saturday afternoon, the Frankfort crew of coaches, parents and runners were in the dark.
Coaches Juan Phillips and Woody Snoberger were running the tallies through their minds. Going from memory and without tangible and actual results in hand, Phillips, in a scene reminiscent of the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” attempted to solve what seemed like an incredibly difficult math equation out loud, as those surrounding him waited for the answer with baited breath.
Then the official word came. Not on the scene over the loud speakers at the event, but rather in the form of phone calls, text messages and Facebook comments from back home in Mineral County. The results, the official word that Frankfort had claimed their first cross country championship in school history, had been announced by the announcers streaming the event on the Internet.
That information was relayed by faithful Falcon fans watching at home to the team.
By a score of 54-59, the Frankfort Falcons had edged two-time defending state champion Fairmont Senior to finish in first place. Winfield finished in third place with a score of 79, East Fairmont finished in fourth place with a score of 109, and Nicholas County was fifth with 153 points.
Finishing in the top eight and earning all-state honors for Frankfort was Xander Shoemake in sixth, Anthony Sanders in seventh, and Peyton Slider in eighth.
One week away from the event, Frankfort was predicted to win the top prize by 20 points over Fairmont Senior, with a predicted score of 55-75 in favor of the Falcons. As fate would have it, however, circumstances out of their control and announced just two days prior to Frankfort leaving for the race narrowed that gap considerably.
On Wednesday, Frankfort’s top runner Garrett Ferguson was notified that he would not be allowed to participate in the event, the result of contact tracing and a subsequent mandatory quarantine due to a possible exposure to COVID-19.
Talk about a gut punch, both to Ferguson individually and to the Falcon squad as a whole.
Rather than throw in the towel, Ferguson and the Frankfort harriers instead double downed on their commitment to their ultimate goal, winning the state championship. Though not allowed to participate in the event, as he and they had done all season but especially in the wake of this bad news, Ferguson and his family served as an incredible source of strength, confidence and motivation to the rest of the team.
While mathematically, Frankfort still entered as a narrow favorite, there was virtually no margin for error. Rather than just running their race which was thought to be all that they would need to do, the seven Falcon runners instead ran the race of their lives, and with Fairmont Senior finishing 16 points ahead of their predicted score, it turns out they needed to.
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,’ were the words of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fate dealt the Frankfort boys’ cross country team a stiff blow, but this group drew strength from adversity. It may have had to develop in rougher waters than normal, but the Blue Wave came through and in a huge way.
“No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” the Bible says. No form of adversity thrown their way could stop the Falcons from earning that state championship victory, and they did so with incredible support from the Frankfort community, before, during and after the race, as evidenced by the epic hero’s welcome they received back home.
Emergency vehicles from the West Virginia State Police, Mineral County Sheriff’s Office, and a plethora of fire companies escorted the team through Northern Mineral County for nearly an hour, with the escort ending at Frankfort High School where the band and supports were waiting.
Frankfort head coach Juan Phillips enthusiastically gave thanks to the crowd assembled, “Thank you so much to everybody for coming out. Thank you, we have a wonderful community we run for. You guys are great supporters, we thank you so much. You helped us stay motivated throughout this entire season, we thank you so much.”
Phillips continued, “Thank you to the band, thank you to everybody for coming out and cheering us on. We are so blessed to have the community we have. These boys, they busted their butts, but they also knew they were busting their butts because they had people here that were pushing them to succeed as well. Thank you for cheering us on, thank you.”
In a post on social media, Frankfort coach Woody Snoberger offered his thoughts, “Racing is a beautiful thing and cross country is the epitome of that beauty. Each athlete has to pull their weight for the team to succeed. You can’t rely on one runner no matter how good they are, because it takes the whole team to win. Times don’t matter, just finishing ahead of the other guy or girl next to you does. These boys and girls have bought into this whole heartedly and are reaping the benefits.”
Snoberger later continued about the boys, “This team has been on a mission for awhile and the cumulative work added up to bring home the state championship…The coaching staff knew this team could be special and very early in the season the community started to realize that too…The support from our Frankfort community was second to none.”
Finally, Snoberger explained his message to the team the night before the race, “I emphasized to them that we keep saying we don’t have to do anything ‘special,’ but the reality is you have already taken care of the ‘special.’ The ‘special’ in our sport is not one performance, it is in the grind. The day in and day out training, the thing no one sees but [you].”
In an interview with Phillips and Snoberger on Tuesday leading up to the race, they explained that each had attended and ran for the same college, West Virginia Wesleyan, and although at different times, they were coached by the same coach, Jesse Skiles.
“One of the things that Coach Skiles was big on is that cross country is family. It was big for myself and Coach Phillips, and both of us have stressed since we came here, building and embracing that cross-country as family culture. We’ve stressed that before we can be good runners, we need to care for each other,” Snoberger explained.
According to Phillips, “Coach Skiles instilled that you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish when everybody buys into each other. We won some championships at Wesleyan when we definitely weren’t the most talented in the conference, but we were able to win it because we were able to buy into each other.”
“I’ve got to give Garrett (Ferguson) a lot of credit for this. Garrett is an athlete, he knew coming in that he was a stud, but the thing is he hasn’t ignored the fact that he can’t do it by himself. He has brought the other kids in and all these kids have bought into one another,” Phillips explained.
Mission accomplished. Despite fate delivering them the stiffest of blows, the Falcon runners ran the race of their lives to accomplish their dream of a state championship.