By Darren Lum
Two Red Hawks cross-country runners are using their small town pride to spur them on against the best the province has to offer this weekend at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations championships in Sudbury.
Junior Nick Phippen and senior Isaac Little earned their all-provincial berths by finishing third in their respective age groups a week earlier at the Central Ontario Secondary Schools Athletics Championship which was hosted at the Ganaraska Forest.
They said living in the Highlands is at the root of their success whether it’s the strength and character they develop from the challenging runs set against the rugged terrain the encouragement from coaches and teammates or the love they have for the community they call home.
The two Hawks said there is added motivation when running against competitors who run for large clubs who have coaches with running pedigrees. It gives them an incentive to prove their community is as capable as larger centres.
“We just want to show ‘em we don’t need all these … clubs or coaches that have run at national level or whatever they go into to be great athletes” Phippen said.
Little added there has always been a group of runners who were part of running clubs in the cities that he has tried to beat.
“Their coaches are out on the trails [shouting out] times to them or whatever. It’s like ‘you know what? My coach is 400 metres from the finish and that’s what I got and that’s great for me. I don’t need all this. I’m just going to push myself to the limit either way. You can take your track club and get outta town” he said.
Little said finishing third left him emotional and completely exhausted at the end of his race.
“At the end of the race I was so gassed but someone could have punched me in the face and I would have still been smiling. It was awesome” he said.
His coach Karen Gervais said this race was the best of his career.
“Isaac fell in with a pack of four runners early in the first loop of the six kilometre race. I could see Isaac struggling to keep up with this group but he kicked up his resolve and hung in with the fast pace of this pack. Little had to contend with the mental challenge of battling back and forth with these runners for most of the course and nearly getting knocked down when ENSS runner Isaac Hollinger tripped and rolled on the course.”
Little remembers seeing Hollinger trip. He attempted to reach for him to help him up.
However the competitor recovered as quickly as he had stumbled and almost knocked Little down which could have taken him out of contention.
This is the second trip to OFSAA for Little who earned his berth two years ago as a Grade 10 athlete.
For Phippen it’s his first OFSAA berth in cross-country.
Gervais wrote in an email that Phippen had to “overcome his mindset of fatigue and not feeling at the top of his game but after a really good warm-up and focus talk on his run he got off to a fast start and pushed to a third position he was able to maintain throughout the course widening the gap between him and the fourth runner significantly in the last quarter of the race. Phippen set out with determination and the goal of making it to OFSAA and did not allow himself to let up. That mental toughness and his outstanding commitment to practice has allowed him to bloom into a much stronger competitor.”
Phippen said there was a sense of accomplishment but also relief at the finish.
“I was getting tired waiting to cross that finish line knowing I was making it to OFSAA for the first time ever in cross-country. It was a great feeling. It was a great experience” he said.
Gervais was happy for the team and her two all-provincial bound runners.
“I was ecstatic about the performances of our runners at COSSA. They exceeded my expectations and I think even their own about what they were capable of. They all ran a really tough physical and mental race” she wrote in an email.
Little who started with the team in Grade 9 after a brief hiatus is very proud of being part of the success whether it was in racing or leading.
“When our team was successful it was even better and now that I’m leaving and I see how good of athletes we have coming behind me and keep doing the same thing and we’re going to have kids like Nick and Corin Gervais. And the team is strong and to see that it’s like this is going to keep going. It’s going to keep happening. We’re going to keep having kids from Haliburton small … town that nobody knows about and we’re going keep having people at OFSAA because of how hard we work and how hard our coaches push us. It’s cool to watch that” he said.
He appreciates feeling like he is contributing to the quality of the program particularly when he sees the effort put forth by the younger runners who will carry on and lead the team.
Gervais pointed out the boys are not just great athletes but also great citizens.
“Their positivity and sportsmanship was recognized frequently by other coaches and were just a great group of kids to work with!” she wrote in an email.
Gervais calls Little an excellent leader on the team and when he graduates his absence will be felt.
“Other runners are inspired by his passion and he cheers on his teammates with the same passion he brings to his own race even in training. Little’s charismatic leadership will certainly be missed” she wrote.
True to his coach’s words he highlighted the strength of the program which was supported by great results last year even if there wasn’t an all-provincial berth.
Last year the team boasted a junior boys team which missed advancing to OFSAA by one point Logain Baird missed OFSAA by one position and Little missed OFSAA by one placing (he was the alternate).
“I feel we have a really strong program and every year we’re always a group of people who’s there for each other to push each other to get the best out of everyone” he said.
This year wasn’t any different for the team at COSSA.
Gervais also highlighted other notable Hawks’ results at COSSA.
This included Logan Heaven’s 19th place finish as a first-year senior; Jonas Moghini’s 21st place; junior runner Bronson McCord who finished despite falling twice and twisted his ankle; junior runner Corin Gervais “ran the race of his life” and finished eighth missing the last individual qualifying berth for OFSAA.
Ever the consummate teammate Little was confident about Phippen making a return trip to OFSAA.
“It’s not a doubt in my mind and I think going through this experience he’s going to be even more ready for next year” he said.
Running this late into autumn is likely to bring cooler temperatures and the white stuff.
Little said when he competed in Pembroke which hosted OFSAA two years ago it snowed during the race. He expects the same thing to happen in Sudbury and will prepare by training in the clothes he had competed in during the season.
Even before COSSA Little was successful winning the cross-country Kawartha title.
He savoured the championship title for how he was able to overcome adversity.
For close to four kilometres he ran with both of his shoes untied which may have come from wet muddy conditions.
At COSSA he took the advice of his coach Gervais and duct-taped up his shoes securing his laces.
Little put in time with Gervais during mid-August with training runs started in August. Phippen said he ran on his own in the summer.
Both runners credit their success to the coaches.
Little added none of this is possible without his dad who drove him to the early 7 a.m. practices four to five days a week most weeks. He also trained with Gervais starting in mid-August.
They not only provided encouragement and help with running (from the sidelines or even running with them) but also made them believe in their potential to be their best.
“They were there for us” Little said referring to staff advisor Catherine Andress community coach Kyra Cockwell and Gervais.
Gervais was impressed by all of the runners who exhibited grit and determination. It reminded her of why she loves running.
“That’s part of what I love about running – we are faced with challenges and must use our mental toughness and resolve to overcome them. Runners have to extend their thinking about their perceived limitations and push past them. I think these lessons we take away from running extend into other areas of our lives” she wrote. “I also like the immediate rewards you see from practice. Runners that train get better. Our runners all saw the results of that this season and I like to see that work ethic get rewarded as it did.”