When Fairfax County, Virginia, began offering middle school sports for the first time this school year, eighth-grader Claire Brown didn’t hesitate to sign up. She decided to join the cross-country team, the first organized sport offered at Sandburg Middle School, because she anticipated it might help her with other sports she plays.
Many of those, Brown said, involve a lot of running. She plays lacrosse, plans to play field hockey and wanted to maintain her ability to sprint.
Meaghan Afrifah also joined right away, but didn’t like it immediately. When the team first ran around the field behind Sandburg’s campus, she wasn’t convinced it was something she’d want to do. But then, she started practicing and running around her neighborhood and that changed her sentiment.
Brown and Afrifah were among the dozens of students who attended cross-country practice Monday, days after the first meet of the season.
As part of the fiscal 2024 budget, Virginia’s largest school system allocated $600,000 for middle school sports, beginning with cross-country and track.
Bill Curran, the county’s director of student activities and athletics, previously said that while some surrounding jurisdictions offer middle school athletics, Fairfax County “grew so fast, and the youth organizations were there to support the growth of athletic endeavors all the way through, up until that ninth grade year, up until high school.”
Superintendent Michelle Reid, meanwhile, hoped the initiative would improve attendance and mental health. At Sandburg, the early feedback is overwhelmingly positive.
“The number of kids that run up to me in the hallway (and say), ‘Can I sign up? Did you start yet? Is it too late?’ Getting that enthusiasm when I’m just walking down the hallway to check my mailbox, it hasn’t even really set in my mind that we’re actually doing this,” said Tyesha Augustin, Sandburg’s athletic coordinator. She said “it’s full throttle.”
About 85 students have signed up to participate on the cross-country team this year, school principal Eric Underhill said. The team practices twice per week and then county buses — also serving kids in other after-school programming — can drop the students off at home.
‘Kids leading their peers is really powerful’
In its first meet, Sandburg faced four other county middle schools at Holmes Middle, an outing Underhill called a “great showing, with top finishes in the top 10 for their boys and their girls’ teams.”
“Kids leading their peers is really powerful,” Underhill said, while watching practice Monday afternoon.
So far, coach Matthew Moore said, between 35 and 50 students have attended practice on any given day. They do sprint workouts along the track, which Sandburg has because it used to be the site of a high school. Practice sometimes includes longer distance runs around the school’s buildings.
The sport has also promoted camaraderie, Moore said, something he witnessed during Saturday’s meet, when everyone on the sidelines cheered for a teammate who appeared to be in first place.
And, Augustin said, that has translated into the classroom.
“They’re holding each other accountable,” she said. “(They’ll say) ‘Come on, guys, let’s get to class.’ Now, kids are more willing to raise their hand and participate in discussions because now, confidence has been built.”
Eighth-grader Luke Garber said he learned about the cross-country program from the school’s website. The sport helps him focus, and gives him something to look forward to once classes are over.
Timmy Steshko joined because he has family members who have won state championships, so he “wanted to follow up on the legacy.”
“We definitely are looking forward to it and talk to each other about how it’s gonna be fun at the end of the day,” Steshko said.
Before the team ran laps Monday, students from West Potomac High’s cross-country team explained what it’s like to participate in the sport in high school, describing how valuable it’s been for them.
The student-athletes eagerly watched and will have the chance to refine their running skills in the spring, when middle schools across the county launch a track team.
Underhill anticipates an even greater turnout for those practices.
“When you think about track and field, there’s events for everybody,” Underhill said. “So if you’re a sprinter, there’s an event for you, whether that’s the 55-meter dash, the 100-meter dash. If you’re into doing more long distance running, there’s going to be an event for you there.”