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Eager Panther cross country team prepares for uncertain season

By Staff | Aug 22, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT The Rugby High Panther boys’ cross country team works out before their first meet in Hillsboro.

Under a sky threatening rain last week, the Rugby High cross country teams ran the track at Johnsen Field to prepare for their first meet at Hillsboro and a fall season holding plenty of unknowns.

“We really anticipate doing some good things by the end of the year, if we can get there,” Panther coach Bill Jansen said of the season ahead.

The Panthers’ season opens at a meet hosted by the Hillsboro/Central Valley Burros Saturday, Aug. 22.

Jansen said Hillsboro/Central Valley’s girls’ team has stood between the Panthers and the state title over several seasons. Last year, the Panthers defeated Hillsboro at the Minot Country Club to become North Dakota Class B Champions.

“We’ve been chasing them for a number of years,” Jansen said. “There were other years when I thought we’d be able to beat them, and we didn’t really put together a race that would necessitate that. They’ve had some real competitive kids that put it together when they needed to at the end of the year. But last year at state, we put it together.”

Sue Sitter/PCT The Rugby High Panther girls’ cross country team practices for their first meet against the Hillsboro/Central Valley Burros. The girls will defend their state Class B title this year against the Burros, who held an eight-year winning streak before the Panthers took the state title last year in Minot.

The Panthers broke an eight-year Burro winning streak for the 2019 title.

Jansen said Hillsboro “lost a girl from the previous year, but they had most everybody” at the 2019 state meet. “They had the girl who won the individual title, so that was good stuff.”

Jansen said of the Panther boys’ squad, “I really don’t know what to expect. We lost some good boys last year.”

“We have Robert Dibble and then Austin Dibble’s our best runner coming back,” Jansen said. “So, in the coming year, we’re looking forward to working together with Austin, Robert and three more runners and try to be as competitive as we can. My expectations are really just to get better over the year and run competitively at the state meet.”

“I’m hoping we’re pretty solid,” he added. “We basically have everybody we had last year. We lost a couple of kids. They’re not seniors this year, so we’re going to have them a couple of years.”

Jansen said the Panthers hope their season will run its course without being canceled early.

“Their goal is to get through a week, go to a meet and get through another week, and try to navigate the rest of the season,” Jansen said. “Hopefully, we can do that. There’s a big dark cloud, like the one that’s over us,” Jansen said, motioning toward the sky above. “There’s a big dark cloud overhead once the schools open up and we have all this contact with people. So, are our schools going to negotiate that? We’re part of our school system and if our school can’t negotiate that, this (cross country program) isn’t going to negotiate that.”

“If the schools go into quarantine or all distance learning, we’re not going to be able to do what we’re doing,” Jansen added. “So, who knows if we’re going to get to the end of the season?”

“It’s just like with our track last year well, starting with basketball, actually making state and not being able to play in the state tournament,” Jansen added. “Since I’m a track coach, I know both our track teams had a real good shot (at state). The girls had a good shot at repeating and the boys had a good shot at winning it with the kids we had coming up. So, that, we lost.”

“The kids are very happy to be here now,” Jansen said. “They’re very happy to be out here doing something. Like I told them, my goal is to make it through a week. We’ve almost got through our first week of practice, and then make it through our first meet.”

In addition to giving the Panthers tips on conditioning, Jansen said he and assistant coach Jennifer Bartsch discuss staying safe during the current pandemic.

“We’ve changed some things we do at practice as far as delivering water (to runners). We’re a group that will usually get in a little bus and drive all over the countryside here to practice, so there will be much less of that from what I can see because of (social distancing guidelines),” Jansen said.

Jansen said the pandemic is “absolutely a distraction of some sort (for the team) because it’s around. We’ve definitely got to take precautions and do as much as we can. We’re outside in the open air and trying to keep kids from being close (together) in a practice setting is almost impossible most of the time, especially when you’re running. As far as that’s concerned, we try to keep them updated on what’s going on and try to do as many smart things as we can.”

“We’ve talked about being a pod our own pod,” he added. “But the pod’s pretty big. We had 37 out at the first practice and 30 some families that you’re dealing with, wherever they go and whoever they make contact with is coming back here. Then, there’s whoever you make contact with in the community. I’ve been a recluse because I wanted to be here. I wanted to be here for practice and I wanted to be involved, so I changed some things that I maybe would’ve done (in more normal times).”

“I told the kids that,” Jansen added. “I said, ‘The season’s 11 weeks in cross country, so you might have to make some sacrifices. You and your families might have to make some sacrifices.’ But if everybody doesn’t buy into that, it only takes one (to spread the infection). It only takes one family, one or two kids, you know?”

Jansen said this year holds plenty of unknowns for school athletics, noting some colleges have canceled fall sports altogether, while the NDSU Bison have canceled its football season.

“We haven’t heard anything (from the North Dakota High School Activities Association), and I don’t think they will cancel (the 2020 high school fall sports season),” Jansen noted. “Unless things get really serious and the governor says something, they won’t change their policy.”

“Many of the (schools on tribal lands) aren’t starting school until mid-September,” Jansen noted. “New Town isn’t participating in cross country until the middle of September, for sure. Then, after that, who knows? Belcourt, they were talking and just made a decision the other day that Turtle Mountain Community High School won’t have their meet, probably not this fall season.”

“So, there are school districts that aren’t having some things,” Jansen said. “Ours is allowing us to go forward until they deem it’s not safe to go forward. The kids, for the most part, I feel pretty good about.”

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