Okoboji's very own "Cross Country Avenue"
Chris Albright, Dakota Kraninger, Joe Hilsabeck and Colby Kraninger have been pretty good friends for as long as they can remember.
These four teammates, all upperclassmen at Okoboji High School, are four of the top runners on a Pioneer cross country squad that has qualified for state in back-to-back seasons under the direction of head coach Brad Peter, an Okoboji alum himself.
But what makes the situation so unique is that they all live on the same mile stretch of 195th Avenue near Horseshoe Bend Recreational Area, proving to be Okoboji's very own version of "State Cross Country Qualifying Avenue."
"That's the most satisfying part for me is that you know that they're having the success together," said Peter. "Knowing that they grew up together and rode the same bus and always talk about going out to the river fishing and hunting together and all of those things. To see them go through this together has to be very satisfying for their families and for me it's great because it validates what we do, our attention to detail in the practices and the meets and the little things that we do to try to help us get over that hump. They enjoy doing it and it's worked out that we've had success with it. It just makes the whole sell to the other kids worth it."
For a program that has qualified for state five times in its history, with all of them coming the past 13 years, the 2012 version of the Pioneers had just the right combination of drive, talent and camaraderie.
"It's just a lot of fun being with a lot of people you've been around your whole life," said senior Dakota Kraninger. "Everybody gets along and it's a big family, so when you share the experience together and do well, it's a good time with the team."
Peter said the first sign of his program turning the corner was the work guys like Hilsabeck, Albright and the Kraningers started putting in every practice.
"They're great kids and hard workers," he said. "The first thing we had to do to turn the corner a little bit from being an average team to being one of the better teams in the area was to get the hard-work mentality. It's nice to have the talent, these kids are talented, but they also like to work hard. Being friends helps them encourage each other and keeps them out and it helps with the other kids too in terms of the hard work aspect. A lot of that was formed before they came to school. They learned it at home growing up and they've worked so hard that makes it so much easier to turn the corner. Then, when you see your leaders working hard it's easier for the younger kids to buy in."
That nose-to-the grindstone, no guts no glory mentality has slowly trickled down to the rest of the team.
"(Two of our seniors) Joe and Chris have been the leaders on our team the last three years, so it's been easy for the other kids to see that the hard work cycles all the way from 1 through 22 (this year)," Peter said.
Hilsabeck believes that his team's depth has also been a major factor in their success.
"We're so good because of our fifth, sixth and seventh runners," he said.
Albright was one of many team members that gradually learned to enjoy the sport once he became involved with it.
"I think people just realized that it's ok to make running your primary fall sport and realize that you can still have fun running," he said. "It's just enjoyable in the team aspect and people saw that and came out."
And this light-hearted, squirrelly bunch certainly has done its best to make cross country a desirable experience for themselves and their teammates.
"The team aspect brings a lot of fun because we're joking and talking on the run and that kind of stuff," said Albright. "And that helps because it can suck at times. I never was a distance runner, but got dragged into it because I used to do wrestling and did it to get into shape for that. Then I started to like running more and more and the team definitely brought a lot of fun as far as making it less of a chore."
Peter knows from experience that the only way to get better at running is by putting in mileage no matter what terrain lies ahead.
"We moved some of our summer running out to Horseshoe Bend just because of the high density of kids who live out there. (Along with Joe, Chris, Dakota and Colby), we have a few other kids that live close to there," said Peter. "Being on the soft surfaces and running other places than the roads or the gravels everyday has been such a big advantage. I'm thankful that the parents are ok with letting the kids drive there, since the best workouts we do are at Gull Point trails and at Horseshoe Bend, there's no doubt about it. We do other workouts at the high school or on the gravel, but without a doubt they're the best places to train. Sometimes the kids get tired of going out there, and I don't blame them because it's difficult, but I think that's been a big part of our success. Training on a difficult surface is going to translate well into a meet."
And he says being able to switch up workout routes and routines has made cross country an easier sell. Well, that, and the fact that his kids get along so well.
"They keep it light because they are friends and do have fun," said Peter. "The fun side of things is a hard sell in cross country because it's hard to imagine running every day is going to be any fun at all. And why would you think that unless you've tried it?
"The fact that they're close and have fun together really helped them see that it was pretty fun," he added. "And a lot of it has to do with the fact that those guys are comfortable and they're great with the other guys and girls on the team and we all get along so well. I couldn't ask for a more close-knit group. When I first started we had some really good runners, but they weren't necessarily good friends, and that's ok, but this group has made this more of a family atmosphere and it's easy to promote that because they know it's fun and they get support."
The support his squad shows in practice also carries over into meets.
"When the JV team is running they see Joe, Chris and Colby all yelling at them at the finish line and that goes a long way towards making them feel like they're a part of the team," said Peter. "Almost every meet you'll see those varsity guys stop their stretches and go out and yell at the kids running, and that's huge. I don't ask them to do that, they just do it, and that's important."
With the seed of success planted in the past two year's teams, Peter now hopes that can carry over into the next generation of young Pioneers.