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It started as something of a whim.

Hannah Hobaugh was making her way through freshman orientation at Santa Rosa High this summer when she came across coach Doug Courtemarche manning the cross country table. He was trying to encourage incoming ninth-graders to sign up with the team. Apparently Courtemarche is part coach, part salesman.

Something in that conversation gave spark to the idea that Hobaugh should go out for the team.

Up to that point, Hobaugh was not an avid runner. She’d dabbled in soccer and was a committed thespian. But running?

“I just said to myself, ‘I love running,’” she said.

But this would be a first for the Panthers. Hobaugh was born with Down syndrome and in their decades at the helm, neither Courtemarche nor co-coach Carrie Joseph can remember a Panther squad ever having a runner with Down syndrome on the team.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Joseph said. “But for us, it’s about exploring a new sport and pushing yourself so that running and exercise is part of what she feels she can do.”

And she can.

In the first two meets of the season, Hobaugh finished races on modified courses. At the Rancho Cotate Invitational on Sept. 8, Hobaugh’s route was limited to the track so she was able to run it solo, without her mom Diane as a guide.

Diane Hobaugh has become somewhat of an honorary Panther this season. During the day, Hannah has an aide who attends class with her, but extracurriculars are a different story. So when Hannah signed on, she essentially signed her mom on, too.

“I said, ‘Well, Doug, that means you get two of us,’” Diane Hobaugh said of the day Hannah joined the team.

If the workout is on the track, Diane watches from afar. But if the Panthers are running the trails at Spring Lake, like they did Monday afternoon, Diane laces up her shoes and runs too. After all, the Santa Rosa squad is so big that Courtemarche and Joseph have to climb aboard mountain bikes to keep an eye on sometimes three different pace groups.

During practice in the searing 98-degree heat Monday afternoon, Hobaugh ran a modified workout.

She ran some, she walked some. When she was coming into the finish, she had tied her ponytail up into a bun to keep her neck cool.

After a break in the shade, she made her way down where a group of faster runners were finishing their workout.

“I made really, really nice friends,” she said before Monday’s workout.

“Everyone is so nice. They supported me through all my races.”

As a bonding event, the girls squad had a team sleepover which apparently was a blast, though few details were shared. Such are the rules of sleepovers.

“The whole team is really fun,” Hobaugh said.

But every minute of cross country isn’t fun. In fact, many days it’s difficult.

“In the beginning, I thought it was really hard,” Hobaugh said.

“All I thought was, it’s a really far distance, but I try anyway,” she said. “I just take it one step at a time.”

Sometimes, on difficult days like Monday, she ends up walking for a bit.

“I walk and run at the same time,” she said.

And getting used to running on trails has had its tricky moments.

“I’m trying not to fall,” she said.

Like most of her teammates, what Hobaugh is able to do today is different from what she was capable of at the start of the season. Her limit, or what might be considered a limit, is shifting.

“She is really watching her ability to sustain more and know her personal body limits. She is growing,” her mom said. “Her personal confidence, you can see it in her face.”

Diane Hobaugh describes her role as peripheral, but she’s seen what the team means to her daughter.

“They are just the nicest bunch of kids,” she said. “They are a solid team where they are encouraging people and congratulating each other. I couldn’t ask for anything more, especially as a freshman.”

Hannah Hobaugh said she takes on workouts and races with a dose of reality. She knows what she can do but is always looking to push it a little farther.

“At Spring Lake it started out to be really slow at first, so I took it step by step,” she said. “That’s what Carrie told me: ‘If you are running at your own pace, it’s OK.’”

“They are really fast runners,” she said of the Panthers. “I’m always in the back.”

But that has its benefits.

“I like my own space,” she said.

Hobaugh isn’t racking up points for the Panthers, but her contributions are still clear, even this early in the season.

Junior Peyton Krzyzek said Hobaugh has brought something new to the team this year: Perspective.

“She has the guts to be out here trying every day,” she said. “It’s such a game changer. It brings a lot more positivity and perspective to the team.”

Joseph said sometimes being a teammate means simply understanding the effort that everyone is putting in — no matter their speed or finish times.

“They are doing something that is really hard,” she said. “It’s mutual respect.”

I asked Hobaugh about her goals for the season, if there was a time she wanted to beat or a course she was really looking forward to.

No, she said.

“I just ask myself what I should do better,” she said.

Sounds like pretty good advice for sport and life.

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

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