PILLAGER -- Running 20 to 30 miles a week doesn't sound like much fun for many people, but that's what 10 Pillager athletes are doing since the start of a cross country program.
Until this year, Pillager offered only football and volleyball for fall sports. The addition of cross country is a new experience for everyone.
"Enrollment is growing," said Pillager athletic director Pete Bothun. "Plus, we've got a new track so we're doing everything possible to strengthen our track and field program."
Pillager will also add boys' and girls' golf this spring. Both of those programs were formerly a cooperative venture with Staples-Motley. Pillager currently co-ops with Brainerd in many sports. Yet, the trend the Pillager athletic administration wants to lean toward is independent athletic programs.
"Our administration wants as many of our own activities as we possibly can because we believe we will continue to grow," Bothun said.
"We were paired with Brainerd in cross country and Staples in golf, but we decided it's time for us to go on our own. We still co-op with Brainerd in a lot of activities, but as we grow we'll go on our own in more of them.
"There will be sports that we will never be able to go on our own, though."
So far this year, Pillager has had trouble fielding a complete team. However, on Sept. 11, the boys' team finished second behind Crosby-Ironton at the Pequot Lakes invitational.
"It's the first year and the kids are still learning," said Bothun." We're starting to see more kids come out.
"School's been on for more than three weeks and Todd (Manninen, the head coach) is bringing in some more kids. Word of mouth is the best advertisement. The members of the team and Todd have talked to other kids, and now that we're starting to have some success more kids are getting into it."
Manninen is from Eveleth-Gilbert where he was head coach for one year. The former social studies teacher then went back to school to get his library science degree. The match in Pillager was perfect. The school district needed someone for the media center as well as someone to spearhead the new activity.
Manninen is taking "baby steps" to ensure the athletes don't lose interest, but still develop into quality distance runners.
"There isn't one kid on the team who has run distance before," said Manninen. "It's been a real test of patience.
"I had two all-conference runners at Eveleth and my top runner should have gone to state, but he got mono. They're a good group of kids and it's been a real learning process."
Five boys and five girls are out even though they didn't know the program was going to start until July. Manninen was in Massachusetts when he learned the program was starting.
In the first meet, Manninen told his runners to relax and just get a time in the books so they could have something to build on. From then on they've had three other meets and every runner has chipped away at their first time.
"Having only run four meets, and with the diversity of terrain, it's hard to get a good grip on how were improving," said Manninen. "Every kid has knocked some time off their first meet. We have some kids who are three minutes faster than they were at the first meet.
"The whole morale has gotten better. It's a different world for these kids. In the last week they've really begun to feel a lot better with what they're doing."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.