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Whether running in a pack or eating pasta, cross-country coaches want their runners to be close together

Whether running in a pack or eating pasta, cross-country coaches want their runners to be close together
Girls in the Class A race head run past the halfway point during the Howard County Cross Country Championships at Centennial High School in Ellicott City last fall. Heading into 2015, cross country coaches throughout the metro area are finding ways to help their teams bond -- like team pasta dinners. (photo by Scott Serio / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Football teams traditionally meet the day before games to prepare for their opponent. They discuss X's and O's and their game plan, making sure everyone feels ready.

The day before a big meet, cross country teams often do things differently. They'll take care of their running, but they'll also focus on off-course, team-building activities — which often involve eating.

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Many coaches get their teams together the night before certain meets for some kind of big pasta dinner. Different teams handle the feasts in different ways, but they're popular with runners and their families, and some coaches swear by the meals.

The Liberty girls won the Class 2A state title last year while the boys took second, and longtime coach Dan Jones regularly brings the teams together the night before a meet for a pasta-heavy, potluck meal. They arrive with food, drinks and desserts for a night of relaxation of conversation.

"You've got freshmen bonding with seniors, and that just doesn't happen in other sports," said Jones, who has kept up the tradition for more than 20 years. "We become a family unit all the way around. When they're a cohesive unit, they're thinking more about a team instead of just their own race, and that helps all seven runners on the course."

Reservoir coach Phil Rogers also loves the way bonding can translate into success.

He believes in doing a few activities the day before a race. For example, if Reservoir faces a big meet on a Saturday, Rogers will put his runners through a practice that starts at 5:45a.m. the day before. Once they've gotten in their easy run, Rogers feeds them breakfast.

He said it could be anything from Chick-fil-A to waffles to breakfast snacks. Afterward, the teams get the afternoon off before coming together again that night, when one runner's family will host the boys and girls for a pasta dinner. Rogers said he tries to always come to the dinner with his wife and 19-month-old son.

The runners will do things like play games or watch a movie. Or they'll eat dinner and head home to relax in preparation for the race the next day.

"When the kids are together in a social environment, it forces them to get to know each other and therefore [pulls] them closer together," Rogers said. "Better friends means better teammates. When you are friends and teammates, it sparks the rivalry amongst each other that I want to beat you or I don't want to get beat by you."

Dulaney coach Chad Boyle also values team-bonding activities, but he, along with coach Eric Benjamin, is careful about the way the Lions use them. Boyle thinks holding them before every meet can grow repetitive, so he'll organize them once or twice a month. Pasta, unsurprisingly, is the food of choice.

"I think it is most popular amongst cross-country teams because there is definitely some beneficial nutritional effects that are derived from carbohydrate loading in the hours prior to a competition," Boyle said. "All sports benefit from carbohydrates in their diets leading up to competition. However, endurance athletes, in particular, get physical benefits that may not extend as significantly to other sports."

Coaches unite their teams in various ways. Loyola Blakefield coach Jose Albornoz, whose Dons won their sixth consecutive Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference team title last fall, had a pool party on a recent Saturday after a long run. Albornoz will hold similar team-building events from time to time during the season.

The Severna Park boys repeated as the Class 4A state champions last fall. Coach Josh Alcombright had done team-wide activities while coaching at Northeast, and the Falcons already had them in place when he took over the program nine years ago.

At Severna Park get-togethers, a host family provides the pasta for the boys and girls — spaghetti, ziti or another pasta dish, along with sauces — while each grade brings in bread, salad, drinks (soda not permitted) and desserts.

"I think they are so popular because they all get to hang out and see teammates' houses," Alcombright said. "The kids eat, play pool, video games, pingpong … but mainly, they just like to hang out with one another. They are all friends in and out of practice because they generally share the same interests and values."

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That always helps teams draw closer. Jones said he believes that the closer a team becomes off the course, the better its members can function on it. They realize the value and meaning of a team, which helps the performance of the team itself.

"When they're a cohesive unit, they're thinking more about a team instead of just their own race," Jones said. "That helps all seven runners on the course."

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