It was sometime during a two-week summer trip to his family’s farm in upstate New York that Newman cross country coach Randy Zell began to see the seeds of a “championship culture” take root.
With him were more than a dozen Newman cross country runners and during the fortnight, he saw them begin to bond in ways that title teams often do. He began to think that Newman could contend for its first Class 2A boys’ state title in a quarter century.
Turns out, he was right.
The Greenies, though lacking what Zell called “superstars,” are ranked second in the state in their division. The boys set goals to have a top-five finish at the New Orleans Metro Championship, to have a perfect score of 15 at their district meet, and to win a state title in Natchitoches in a scant six weeks.
Zell, who’s been at Newman since 1993, said this year’s boys team has what it takes because of a dedication to detail, to hard work, to character, and most importantly, to one another.
“There’s all sorts of different descriptions of team cultures,” Zell said. “You can have everything from a country club culture to an overly competitive culture. But what a championship culture has is results from competitive teams that not only want to do well, but that want to build relationships. When it’s all over, they’re lifelong friends. They’re not just athletes who may win a state title. They are people who care about one another, and they care about winning together.”
Take, for instance, the top runners at Newman this season. The fastest time belongs to Michael Brown, a sophomore who has posted a 16-minute, 43- second time over three miles. The rest of the top seven includes two freshmen, three juniors, and only one senior (co-captain Walter Lapeyre.)
But right on their heels is a trio of dedicated seniors that push their younger teammates to keep working hard, Zell said. Zack Backstrom and Will Milvid are co-captains, and fellow senior Ben Soullier (who might as well be a team captain, his teammates said.) Though they have battled some injuries this season, that senior foursome has changed the attitude of the team, their coach said.
“Only one of our top seven is a senior, and yet, we wouldn’t be where we are without those four kids,” Zell said. “They lead by example. They’re never late. If you cut corners, they address it. . . . They’ve been able to build a community around here. They get ‘it.’ ”
Milvid said the leadership role comes easily for the seniors, and that they all are friends.
“We do try to include everybody, and that’s important because they feel included,” he said. “When they’re veterans out here, they’ll include their younger teammates. It will make the teams stronger.”
“I like to think of our team as a brotherhood,” he said. “We get scored as a team, not individually. Sure, you get some individual awards, but you have to be in tune as a team to really produce results. We have to be in tune with that, at practice and in meets. It’s paid dividends.”
Brown said those positive results have been obvious and have helped him emerge as his team’s fastest runner to date this season.
“(Those seniors) are great people overall,” Brown said. “They’re showing us all how to create the next generation (of Newman cross country.) But it’s not just on the cross country team. During the week in school, you can ask their advice, and they’re there to help. It does help us feel like we’re a major part of the team and that we can do big things together.”
Zell’s confident this could be the year that the Newman boys climb back to the top of the team podium. His squads have been runners-up at state twice since he arrived, but have yet to finish first (as they last did in 1990.)
“They get the big picture,” Zell said. “It’s pretty exceptional. In 22 years, I’ve had some really great kids and some really great teams. But these guys know where we’re trying to go with this. It’s been special.”