* Nearly 600 athletes from various regions in Texas traveled to Cedar Park on Friday and Saturday to compete at the Cedar Park Invitational
Photo Credit: Cory Mull
CEDAR PARK, TEXAS -- On any other year, this weekend's invitational would have been a cake walk for Chance Edwards.
Just last year, in his first year as head coach for Cedar Park High School after moving on from Montgomery -- where he was the UIL Class 6A Coach of the Year in 2018 -- he had helped usher in nearly 50 teams and a total of 2,500 athletes to the Cedar Park Cross Country Invitational.
But on Saturday?
There were barely 400 athletes, spread across an early a.m. and late a.m. schedule, which Edwards knew was protocol after the University Interscholastic League had capped invitationals to just eight teams on a course at a time, with strict guideline of no more than 80 kids per race.
Months of planning had prepared him for this rarified moment: Holding a meet through the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he was determined. He had gone out of his way to make sure other teams could line up across complex time schedules, holding jayvee races on Friday -- with the same guidelines -- followed by varsity action on Saturday. This was important, even if it meant he had to ask a little more out of everyone, from his athletes, to his volunteers, even if it meant paying the timer a little bit more.
Few moments he experienced over his career felt like this.
"It's almost felt like I was in my first year of coaching again," Edwards said of the gap between track and field and Saturday's action. "We took such a long layover. That's not something that's happened in my coaching career."
But his worries were calmed as athletes made their way to the finish line, the elation of a PR once again taking center stage for handfuls of athletes.
* New Braunfels senior Kennady Fontenot (right) won the girls' Division 2 race in 19:29.40
Photo Credit: Cory Mull
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"I haven't taken the stance this entire that we weren't going to have a season," Edwards said. "I was always under the impression that we were going to make it happen and get it in regardless.
"So coming back after all that was exremely exciting. Parents were excited. Kids were excited. School members were excited. We were all fired up to get this in."
Moments of victory could be seen from athletes. Saturday, in particular, was an incredible day for Austin Westlake senior Charles Dawson.
His offseason had consisted of significantly higher mileage, into the 60s, even if some weeks that meant the silent cadence of the road and his steps for hours at a time. But it was that kind of training, he believed, that would drive him toward career best marks and a potential state championship qualification. He was 66th at regionals a season ago.
"I was pretty far off last year, honestly," he said.
Nearly six months had gone by since his last race. But any kind of pre-race anxiety faded the moment he stepped to the line.
"Just lining up and doing our warm-ups on the start," he said of the positive feeling that returned, "we haven't done that in so long. It's the feeling you get before a race. It's something I can't describe."
Once the gun sounded, Dawson made his way into the lead pack and then unfurled a lethal late race kick that saw him shatter his personal best. He recorded his first career win on Saturday in 16:22.10.
"It feels amazing," he said. "The sound of the start gun was, uhh, so nostalgic."
Just a few seconds back, Cedar Park's Gareth Hopwood, a junior, had picked off a few runners in the final half-mile. He, too, had the best race of his career.
"After coming out of this," Hopwood said of his canceled spring, "I just wanted to be one of those people who were ready to compete."
"Just lining up and doing our warm-ups on the start, we haven't done that in so long. It's the feeling you get before a race. It's something I can't describe." -- Charles Dawson
Behind the scenes, coaches resumed their favorite aspects of the job: Working the tangents, encouraging athletes and hoping for improvement. Austin Vandegrift (TX) head coach Colin Sully said he was giddy for his team's first meet, so much that he couldn't sleep.
Few seasons over his tenure had been this chaotic, with practices split into four squads among his 100 athletes, from varsity teams to sub-teams and freshman squads. The four practice quadrants were done, he said, to minimize possible exposure time in groups.
"I'm not an epidemiologist," said Sully, who is an AP Physics teacher. "But I feel if we reduce the exposure time (from any possible issues with COVID-19), that betters our chances for us remaining safe."
The previous year, Cedar Park's meet had been the third race on his team's calendar. But his varsity squad would have to make due of a significantly smaller race calendar in 2020, with just four races before their district contest.
And so Sully awoke at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, barely able to sleep the previous night. In some ways, it felt like Christmas: A chance for his athletes to dust off the spikes and get out and race.
Photo Credit: Cory Mull
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"It was awesome to see," he said of his team's efforts, which saw the boys' and girls' varsity teams win each of their varsity races, while success also followed the jayvee teams.
He was especially thankful that Edwards went out of his way to allow sub-varsity teams to compete.
"If it wasn't for Coach Edwards, I wouldn't be racing half of my kids," he said.
There were parents equally glad to be on the sidelines, too.
Omar Perez had shuttled his son, Adam, to destinations around San Antonio for much of the spring, putting in the kind of work that was often bestowed to the high school coach. But he knew these past few months were different, so he took time away from his work schedule to make sure his son was doing the work required to improve. He watched as his son, a rising sophomore, would often train on trails behind their home.
Ultimately, Perez had hoped for a resolution to the questions that plagued the spring.
"It's different when you're running with your peers and striving to do better," he said.
And so he was just as ready to travel on Saturday, commuting the 90-plus minutes north from Smithson Valley. Adam Perez went on to post a career best 17:32.50 as the third-finisher on his team. He was inside the race's top 25 and helped the Rangers to a fourth-place finish.
"Today was a good day," Perez said. "We saw him and the team step it up a little more than they have recently. I think that had to do a lot with running for pride and wanting to represent the school they're running for."
Perhaps everyone had a different for being at the Cedar Park Invitational on Saturday, though the overall goal was clear: Let's get through this and continue on as best we can.
"It's really a fact that this is my last chance," Dawson said. "Especially with COVID, I don't know what's going to be our last meet. Nothing is going to be guaranteed. I'm just trying to go all-in on every meet and try to drop times as best as I can."
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You can contact MileSplit USA editor Cory Mull at email@example.com. You can also tweet or follow at him @bycorymull