Benefield: These cross country athletes can master courses outdoors and in the classroom

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They had a few other things on their plate. Most high school athletes do.

It’s no easy task, balancing school work, team commitments and everything else that comes with a typical high school year.

But add to that the weight of dealing with the Valley fire, a deadly blaze that killed four people, destroyed 1,280 homes and halted the school year — and the cross country season —just as it was getting out of the blocks.

You’d be forgiven if you cut the Middletown High School cross country team a break this year; if you looked the other way when athletes’ grades slipped or they didn’t turn in a peak performance.

You’d be wrong to do that.

The Middletown Mustangs boys’ cross country team not only posted a strong finish in the North Central I league, its members also earned a collective 3.98 grade point average. Those are the highest marks in the state — for any team — this school year.

The school will be honored with a CIF-issued banner and Principal Bill Roderick said there is already a spot picked out where it will hang in the gym. He credited coach Sarah Carlisle with stressing academics and accountability, but Carlisle said this team didn’t need any haranguing.

“They were the type of kids that were taking care of it on their own,” said Carlisle, who teaches Spanish at the high school. “It’s a pretty awesome group.”

The Middletown High class of 2016 had four valedictorians. Three of them were on the cross country team.

“Once in a while, you have this group that makes it so fun and makes coaching so easy,” she said.

“For a lot of reasons, things will never be the same. This group of kids was such a strong group of kids in character.”

They showed character in spades this season. Kids on the team lost their homes in the fire. Their home course was burned; their season halted in its early stages.

This was the team, you might recall, that was the first to rally the troops and show up and compete in the Middletown purple and gold after the fire.

And for all they went through as a team and a community, they did better in the classroom than any team around.

But one team came close, and it turns out it was just down the road.

Cardinal Newman’s girls’ cross country team tied for second as the top team grade point average with a 3.97. The Cardinals posted the best result of any girls’ cross country team in the state.

“I think it’s a rare group that drives themselves to be successful in every single facet of their lives,” said Chris Puppione, who coached the team last fall. “That’s what these girls do.”

Gossip on this squad constituted ribbing each other about who got the higher score on the Spanish quiz or who was getting the best grade in Mr. Bruno’s chemistry class.

“They needed each other to make each other better; they really fed off that,” Puppione said.

“And they are the fastest team Newman or Ursuline has ever had,” he said.

And unfortunately for teams they will face in the North Bay League next fall, they are young. There was not a senior in the group.

Since the award was established by the CIF in 1996, Cardinal Newman has won five state GPA team banners, according to Principal Graham Rutherford.

As awesome as it is to have two local teams on this very select list, I had to wonder, are we spiking the water jug at cross country practice with genius juice?

Both cross country winners are from these parts, after all.

Carlisle said it’s nothing so ominous.

“It definitely draws kids with discipline,” she said.

“They are going to be the type of kids that know how to put work in. You have to be willing to do something that is not always fun — working hard, knowing that the reward comes later.”

Sounds like the perfect kind of kids to celebrate.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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