If you live in Canton or Plymouth, you probably caught a quick glimpse of them the past several months, running together on sidewalks, dirt roads, imperfectly-groomed trails — running into the wind, running despite the rain, enduring through the heat, defying frigid temperatures and falling snow.
If you saw members of the Canton High School cross country team doing what they do best the past several months, you probably had no idea you were watching the ascension of a feel-good story that was fueled by everything that makes athletic programs excellent: hard work, dedication and a special level of camaraderie.
Guided by 25-year Head Coach Bill Boyd and a staff of assistants who know first-hand what it takes to become cross country standouts, the Chiefs entered this past weekend’s MHSAA State Meet as the fourth-ranked team in Division 1 — an amazing feat considering two shorts years ago the program was solid, but far from challenging the premier programs in the state like it has done this autumn.
“Two years ago, we didn’t have anyone who could break 17 (minute), 45 (seconds) (over 5-kilometer courses) and we finished 11th in the regionals,” said Boyd. “Last year, we finished fourth in the regionals and our top two guys ran 30-second (personal-record times) in the regional meet, so we knew if we worked hard in the months leading up to this season, it could be special.”
To say the team worked hard when no one was looking — except for the motorists who got a glimpse of them running together alongside a random road — is an understatement.
“These young men embraced the attitude that they could be as good as anybody,” Boyd said.
“They were running together in January, February; they ran in a lot of road races and competed in indoor track — they did whatever they could to get to where they are now.
“What really put this team over the top, though, was how much time they spent together away from practice and meets. They hung out together, went out to eat together, went to movies together. I know it’s a cliche, but they were like brothers and they always had each other’s back.”
Boyd said of all his runners who competed on the varsity squad this season — 10 of the program’s 27 members earned varsity letters — only one ran what would be considered a lackluster race.”
Canton’s resurgence was fueled by sophomore Aiden Pengelly and senior Mitchell Clark. Pengelly placed 18th on Saturday with a school-record time of 15 minutes, 31 seconds, making him the second-fastest sophomore in D1 and earning him All-State honors.
Clark, a three-year member of the program, finished in 15:36, good enough for All-State accolades.
“When I joined the team as a sophomore, a lot of our PR’s were three minutes slower than they are now,” said Clark, talking about how far the Chiefs have come. “Gradually, we got more and more guys on the team who were willing to put in the work. We started running together year-round, six or seven days a week and the hard work has paid off.
Hard work breeds fun times
“It’s been a fun season, watching us do the best this program has done in a really long time.”
Pengelly said he started running the summer before his sixth-grade year at Pioneer Middle School with his dad Scott, who was the first cross country runner in the history of the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park to run a sub-16-minute 5K.
“I like cross country because, unlike other sports, you get to go out and see different parts of the community when you’re running … you’re not limited to a gym or a field,” Pengelly said. “I started running a few miles a day with my dad in sixth grade and I found I really liked it.”
Clark said he and Pengelly generally run close to run another through the first two-plus-miles of each race.
“Once there’s about 200 meters left, it’s an all-out sprint between us and he usually gets me,” Clark said, smiling.
The Chiefs won every competition they raced in this season with the exception of a couple.