“This is a sprinting school and I want to help change that,” said Proviso East Assistant Cross Country Coach Billy Poole-Harris.

The 20 year-old second year coach might find revitalizing Proviso’s Cross-Country team an uphill run. The boy’s team finished last in the West Suburban Silver Conference last year, partly due to the low number of runners that came out for the team. Worse, the girl’s team did not have enough runners to score in the district meet.

They only had five finishers, after losing one of their runners to injury. Nonetheless, Poole-Harris declared, “In three years, I want Proviso East to be one of the top teams in the state.”

The young coach’s aspirations are shared by boys’ coach Johnnie Jenkins and girls’ coach DeVaughn Benion. “We’re not a distance-minded school,” Jenkins admitted, “But the new magnet school will bring in more long distance runners.”

Indeed, two magnet school freshmen from Forest Park, Gabriel Tafolla and De’Ja Baker, have shown promise. Jenkins sees hope for Cross Country: “We already have the fourth or fifth best track team in the state. We just have to build up our distance running.”

The problem, Jenkins says is that “kids don’t want to run distance ” or they don’t come out for the team until they’re juniors.” Cross Country also loses runners to more glamorous sports like football. Fortunately for Jenkins, “Billy is selling the program and motivating the runners.”

Jenkins is a living example of how track and field can pay off for an athlete. The Proviso West grad was state champion in the long jump in 1988. This earned him a track scholarship to Chicago State University. “Hard work pays off,” Jenkins said. “Students shouldn’t wait until senior year to find out they’re distance runners.” To help motivate his team, Jenkins began running alongside them. “I’m 36 years-old. If coach can do it, they can do it.”

Coach Benion has also had personal success in running. “I was national high school champion in the 100 meters all through high school,” Benion said. “I qualified for the Olympic Trials but strained a muscle and had to withdraw.” Nevertheless, Benion’s high school career landed him a scholarship at the University of Florida, where he was part of the fastest 400-meter relay team in the country.

Benion is looking forward to this year’s season. “We have seven runners returning this year. Our numbers are up again. We’ve been recruiting girls from Spring soccer. We see Cross Country as helping the track team and other programs like soccer.”

Poole-Harris is more single-minded than his superiors when it comes to cross-country. That’s because he had such a successful long-distance career at Oak Park-River Forest. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be on a high school cross-country team. It was brotherhood. It was everyone being there for each other, suffering together.”

For the OPRF runners, there was camaraderie aside from the training. The team would enjoy “pasta pigouts” the night before meets and their coaches handed out weekly achievement awards. Poole-Harris hopes to use these motivating tools at Proviso.

He acknowledges that cross-country is a tough sell but happened to fall in love of it in 6th Grade. After breaking the school record for the mile at Irving School, Poole-Harris was encouraged to go out for the Julian Junior High team. “I almost got cut but turned out to be the best runner on the team,” he said.

He said he found that cross-country “became addictive.”

“It’s fun, competitive and it feels really good to beat people.” His best day for beating people came in a high school conference meet. After his coach yelled, “Billy, you gotta catch some people,” Poole-Harris passed between 7-12 runners in the final straightaway and literally dived at the finish line. His performance helped OPRF beat the perennial state champs from York.

York and OPRF have a tremendous advantage over Proviso: a system of schools feeding long-distance runners. Still, Poole-Harris plans to build up the program with the runners they can recruit.

“It takes guts and mental toughness to run through freezing rain and pain,” Poole-Harris acknowledged, “But cross-country gives kids a healthy outlet and potential scholarships. It’s opened up so many doors for me.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.