The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


July 17, 2013

Running their course

BECKLEY — Slouched on a beanbag chair, gaze fixed toward the television, gaming system or questionable broadcasting filling an otherwise idle mind. Potato chip bag riding shotgun (if you’re a couch potato, does this qualify as cannibalism?).

These are all the clues needed for the average person to guess the subject of the scenario: Teenager. A group of Raleigh County kids in their “Running is the ultimate metaphor for life: You get out of it what you put into it” shirts are set to challenge the stereotypes.

Led by State Farm insurance adjuster and father George Barbera, the group of 25 Park Middle School students making up the cross country team are outrunning many contemporary troubles kids face — childhood obesity, substance abuse, more than their fair share of anxiety — with an old-fashioned dose of committed activity.

Assistant Coach Barbera describes his cooperative effort with lead coach Jacqueline Trent in beginning a cross-country middle school team last year as something he wanted to do for a long time. The Road Runners answered his call by interpreting their mascot literally, gathering today on a warm summer afternoon to condition before the regular practice season starting Aug. 5. They’ve participated in this optional activity in lieu of typical lazy summer days for the last two weeks, not your average level of dedication for not your average student athletes.

“Out of the 18 we had last year, 11 had 4.0 grade point averages,” said Barbera.

In 2012, they arrived on the scene as underdogs, with no record to bark about.

“There had never been an official Park Middle School cross country team. I told my runners — ‘You guys want to make history? Win this race and you will make history.’ Park had never won a cross country meet — ever.”

Win they did. The boys’ team took home two first place wins from meets in Greenbrier County and Wyoming County. “They kept yelling, ‘We made history! We made history!'”

Cross country and track are personal interests of Barbera's. His father, Willie, was his cross country coach for 10th, 11th and 12th grades at the school he attended in Florida. He was on a committee several years ago to resurface the Woodrow Wilson High School track.

“It motivated the kids, but also the community. After the track got resurfaced, I saw an increase in people out there walking.”

He takes the same replicable properties of inspiration and applies them to growing the Park cross country program, inspiring other kids to realize their bodies can do a lot more than they sometimes give them credit for.

“We had a race last year in Mineral Wells. No lightning, but a torrential downpour. The kids were all muddy, wearing their tank tops and shorts. They battled it. For some, it was their first race, and they still came back.”

Aside from learning quickly that they are indeed waterproof, cross country runners learn to go the distance; at the middle school level, this means courses 1.75 to 2 miles in length, generally over natural trails featuring often steeply graded terrain. Another metaphor, another T-shirt. “It’s a Hill — Get Over It.”

The 2013 season begins early August and extends through October for the woodland warriors striving to achieve focus, discipline, personal goal-setting and self- improvement. Many of the students are being taught a sport they can continue for a lifetime, as they diversify into road running and distance running competitions.

Barbera’s youngest son, Chris, is also on the team. Chris had his first individual win in 2012, and has entered and placed in local 5k competitions this summer. He is also a basketball and baseball player.

“This is a way for them to stay in shape and to condition them for their other sports. I don’t mind that cross country is often a second or third sport,” said Barbera, extending an invitation for off-season conditioning opportunities for basketball players, wrestlers and any who want to enter their respective seasons stronger and faster.

“They could be out doing other things, but they choose to do this,” Barbera stated. “They are a great group of kids who are true student athletes.”

For more information about Park Middle School’s cross country team, e-mail Coach Barbera at beckleycoach

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