When it comes to cross country at Bigfork High School, nothing has ever been certain for very long.
From 1974, when the boys cross country team won the first state title in school history, to the school board’s decision in the spring to quit funding the program, cross country has walked a precarious tightrope, hovering between excellence and nonexistence.
A fundraiser on Aug. 14 at the high school is the latest community effort to save a program that often finds itself on the chopping block when budget dilemmas arise. The 5-kilometer run had already garnered 32 sponsors and 61 runners as of July 30, head cross country Sue Loeffler said. She’s hoping for more than 100.
“The town of Bigfork has really supported us,” Loeffler said. “It’s neat to see the way the people have rallied.”
After winning two boys’ championships and one girls’ championship in the 1970s, the cross country program was dropped from Bigfork High School’s activities for more than a decade in the 1980s and through the 1990s.
When it reemerged, it did so under its own power. Receiving no money from the district, it funded itself until 2004 when it was reinstated as a school-funded activity. In that period of self-sufficiency, the girls won three straight Class B titles from 2001-2003.
So this isn’t Loeffler’s first August of uncertainty. With the school board’s decision to eliminate funding because of budget struggles, Loeffler is again faced with the prospect of a fall without cross country.
In her 36 years at Bigfork High School, Loeffler has been involved with cross country in some form each year it’s existed. For most of that time she’s been the head coach. This year, she has volunteered to forgo her salary of $2,376, leaving the program $2,640 short of the requirement to operate as a school sport.
If the fundraiser makes enough money to pay her salary and her assistant’s, in addition to covering bare bones operating costs, Loeffler would be pleased, but it’s not her top priority. Nor is the top priority of assistant coach Jessica Johnson.
“I just want to see the program go,” Loeffler said. “Both the assistant coach and I – if we get paid, fine, but if not, fine.”
Staring down a substantial shortfall in the district’s budget, the school board chose to eliminate golf and cross country because of low participation numbers, which have plagued cross country – particularly girls – for years.
Since winning its last Class B title in 2003, Bigfork hasn’t had enough girls to fulfill the minimum team requirement of at least five participants, Loeffler said. The boys, however, have put together teams during that period.
Nevertheless, Loeffler points out that the girls have produced upper-echelon runners, including Kayla Carlson, who graduated last year. Carlson was a perennial state contender in cross country and a two-time state champion in track. Carlson received a scholarship to run at the University of Mary in North Dakota.
Before Carlson, Brooke Andrus was one of the most dominant long-distance runners in Montana. Andrus, now a star senior runner at the University of Montana, was recently named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District VII women’s track and field/cross country second team.
And Bigfork’s championship teams of 2001-2003 were full of talent.
“Bigfork has had some great runners,” Loeffler said. “But they need exposure for college and if they don’t run cross country, they’re not going to get exposure.”
Loeffler, also the head track coach, said not having cross country would negatively impact her track squads as well. Cross country is held in the fall and track’s in the spring.
Registration for the 5-kilometer run on Aug. 14 is at 7:30 a.m. at Bigfork High School. The run begins at 8:30 a.m. Participants get a tee-shirt and can walk or run at their own pace. Prizes and ribbons are awarded to the top finishers.
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