With a dominating performance on Nov. 3 at the MSHSAA Girls Cross Country Championships at Oak Hills Golf Course in Jefferson City, the Bolivar Lady Liberators recorded their second Class 3 state championship in three years. Led by a pair of top-10 All-State performers, Bolivar posted a team score of 77, out-distancing state runner-up Festus’ 94 points by a comfortable margin.
In the boys Class 3 state race, Bolivar ended its podium drought in convincing fashion, as the Liberators finished as the Class 3 state runner-up. Bolivar posted a team score of 71 points, which easily beat out third-place Smithville (100) and fourth-place Herculaneum (134).
The top four teams at State reach the podium and take home trophies. It was Bolivar’s first podium finish on the boys side since a third-place finish in 1990. It ended an agonizing run of near misses for the Liberators in recent years.
“The Internet never moves fast enough,” said longtime Bolivar head coach Ron Bandy, who is in his 11th season at the helm of both the Bolivar boys and girls teams. “I looked like a little kid hitting the refresh button on my phone. I hate technology, but I love it. Back when I started coaching, all you could do was some research, maybe call some folks and hope they could give you some in-depth insight on a team. Most of the time, though, you just showed up and competed. You trained and you worked hard and you just knew that you were ready for the meet and whatever happened happened.
“In today’s day and age, you know from the get-go, and I’ve always had gut feelings about my teams and about where they could be,” added Coach Bandy. “My gut told me that the girls could win it and the boys could be second. You start running stats on meets from the rest of the state. Things fluctuate but that’s where we sat all season. It almost makes it worse because there is such an expectation. God love them they all know it. I don’t want them doing all the stuff I do to prepare them, but they know and they’re curious and I was, too, and I would’ve been at their age.”
The Lady Liberators had been dominant all season. In fact, a pair of Class 4 powers (Carl Junction and Grain Valley) were the only teams to beat the Bolivar girls all season, as the Lady Liberators notched victories at the Bolivar, Hermitage and Camdenton Invitationals, as well as the District 6 race. The Liberators were nearly as dominant, with four invitational wins and a pair of second-place finishes.
“We knew going in (to State) where we should be and it was ours to lose,” said Coach Bandy of the Lady Liberators. “It was my job to make sure they were mentally and physically prepared to fight that battle. And man they were and they rose to the challenge.”
Senior Anna Bandy, the coach’s oldest daughter who wrapped up a standout career with her third-straight All-State effort, paced the Lady Liberators with a 7th-place overall finish that was good for four points for Bolivar. At the State meet, teams that qualify run the same race as individual qualifiers, but for purposes of the team competition only the team competitors’ scores count. The top 25 individual finishers earn All-State honors.
Sophomore standout Mackenzie Duncan, who missed virtually all of her freshman season to injuries, was close behind in 13th-place. The finish by Duncan, who was the District medalist the week before, earned her All-State honors and her team seven points in a sport in which the lowest score wins.
Sophomore Cora Stimpson earned 18 points for the Lady Liberators, followed by juniors Sarah Green (23) and Jillian Porter (25). The scores posted by the quintet of Bandy, Duncan, Stimpson, Green, and Porter added up to 77 points. Freshman London Wilson (35) and sophomore Emily Bandy (37) also had strong races, and their scores would have been very important in terms of tie-breakers had they been needed.
Standing at the finish line at State, it is near impossible to decipher which team is winning, who is second, or how things are going with wave after wave of runners sprinting to the line. Which runners are there competing as individuals? Remember the individual finishes do not affect the team competition, so how can you know for sure how things are going?
That’s where the constant hitting of the “Refresh” button on the phone comes in. Each meet features live scoring on-line, so it’s a matter of refreshing one’s phone or other device over and over. Although Coach Bandy (and others) had a pretty good idea, when the last “refresh” revealed another state title, it was pandemonium for the huddled-up Lady Liberators.
“We were all in our team huddle and I heard everybody scream,” said Duncan. “They were all looking at Coach Bandy’s phone and I didn’t realize what everybody was screaming about. I just heard the excitement, so I just started screaming. And then I looked at the phone and saw that our name was at the top. Obviously, I screamed again. I was super excited. I don’t have any words. It was amazing. It was super exciting.”
“After the race, we were all just huddled up waiting for the results,” said Anna Bandy. “When I found out, I was kind of shocked but also very happy. I’d had that experience before (in 2016), but I really wanted it for my team this time. Not too many people can say that they have won two state championships, but I can, so it’s really amazing and I am very blessed.”
“I don’t know if I still believe it right now,” said Stimpson. “The other day I was just laying in my bed staring at the medal. I was like ‘is this even real?’ I cried so many times the day we won it. It was just so amazing and so overwhelming.”
“I was really happy,” said Green, a transplant from Texas in her first season with the Lady Liberators. “It was really amazing. I was just so excited, so I jumped into Mackenzie’s arms, but I spiked her foot, so that was bad. I wouldn’t want to win a state championship with anyone else, because these girls are amazing.”
“It was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me,” said Emily Bandy. “My eighth-grade year I was there when my sister (Anna) won State. My freshman year I wanted it, but I didn’t understand how much I actually wanted it when we lost it. This year it meant so much to me to get it, because I got to experience that moment with my sister and my dad and my mom. It just made me so happy. I wouldn’t have wanted to share it with anyone else.”
Whether it was nerves or the weather or nothing really at all, the Lady Liberators were not running their best race early on. After the first mile of the 3.1 mile race, Bolivar found itself back in the pack. And they had their coach a bit worried.
“The girls had me scared,” said Coach Bandy of his observations early on. “The conditions got worse. It actually started to rain right at the beginning of the race. The course was already getting sloppy. We did not look good at the beginning. The first mile marker was pretty rough on us. Coming into the two mile we had started to move up, and at that point I knew that we were pretty secure in the trophy contention. Looking back, seeing the two-mile marker, we had already moved into first. We were second at the mile and we had moved into first at the two mile and I could kind of feel and see that. But to me it wasn’t a slam dunk yet.”
Green could see that things were not the way they were supposed to be. Over the course of the season, each runner had become accustomed to about where everyone should be during a race. The fact that Green was running along with the team’s top two runners at the one-mile mark was a bit concerning.
“At first, I was running with Mackenzie and Anna and I was like ‘they should be up further,’ but I wasn’t worried because they’re great runners,” said Green. “So I just thought if I can hang with Mackenzie and Anna for as long as I can then we should be okay.”
“This season it’s just always been to run with Anna,” said Duncan of her race strategy. “She’s been my running buddy from the beginning of the summer until (State). My strategy has always just been ‘run with Anna.’”
Anna and Mackenzie eventually did pull away, with both notching top-10 finishes to pace the team. The blue and gold Lady Liberator uniforms may as well have had a target on them, as opposing teams knew which team was the one to beat.
“During the race, I would hear other coaches tell their runners, ‘Get Bolivar!,’” said Stimpson. “That’s all I heard, like the whole race. It was kind of nerve-wracking, but it was also a motivation, I guess, to not let them do it.”
“I just focused on the team and us doing our best,” said Porter. “I didn’t really focus on winning a state title as much. We were told earlier in the season, but I haven’t really heard it since that we were at the top, so what I was focused on was that everybody did their best and I did my best. Whatever happened after that would take care of itself.”
For the boys, the state runner-up finish was as gratifying as the girls’ state championship. Sure, it would have been great to win it all, but the Liberators were up against a modern-day cross country dynasty in Festus, winners of the past five Class 3 state titles. In fact, Festus has won seven of the past 10 championships, and finished as the state runner-up the other three seasons.
The Liberators had flirted with the podium for the past several years, with nothing but agonizing and heartbreaking close finishes to show for it. Last year, Bolivar finished in fifth-place and just two points off of the podium behind fourth-place Helias Catholic. Two years ago, Bolivar finished in sixth-place, but just six points behind fourth-place Helias. In 2014, the Liberators finished in fifth-place, just four points behind fourth-place St. Charles.
The Liberators knew they had to go low and going low as a team also increased the likelihood of All-State finishes individually. Last season, Caleb Pyle was the lone All-State finisher. In 2016, Bolivar featured a pair of All-State finishers in Nathan Painter and Tracen McKinney. In 2014, there was just one All-State honoree in Ryan Skopec.
In this year’s State race, though, the pack-running Liberators put three runners in the top-25 to earn All-State honors. Pyle, who capped his senior season this year with his second-straight All-State run, finished in 5th-place overall to earn three points for Bolivar. Junior Peter Bowling ran a solid race to finish in 9th-place overall, which was good for six points for the Liberator cause. McKinney earned his second All-State honor in this his senior season by finishing in 18th-place overall, good for 13 Liberator points. Senior Spencer Feugate earned 23 points for Bolivar, followed by freshman Cale Thiessen (26), junior Will McCracken (30) and sophomore Brett Pollock (33).
“I’m so happy that we did it,” said Pyle. “I still can’t believe that we did it. I was so close with the Skopec group and those boys. I remember hearing the stories of how hard it was to be four points out that year, and even experiencing it my sophomore year to be six points out and then last year two points out. It hurt a lot. And now finally getting it done it was the greatest day of my life to finally be able to know that we came together as one. And not just the boys but the girls too. We did something amazing and I can’t be prouder of everybody.”
“I would never have dreamed this season was possible in a million years,” said Bowling. “I knew we were ranked high, because at the beginning of the year Festus was ranked first and we were ranked second. We proved those rankings were right and I was just proud of our team. During the race, Tracen kept me in line because he saw me falling back. I ran with him for a little bit. I just ran my race from then on. I wanted to end the trophy drought, because after being on the team that missed it by two points last year, this year was all about redemption for me.”
“This entire year has been about the team,” said McKinney. “Me and Caleb came in the year after the Skopecs left. They were the team that decided they were going to leave this program better than they found it. They started leaving the impact on Nathan Painter and Spencer Williams and Jacob Cruz, who ultimately made me and Pyle the leaders that we are now and really instilled the team value. The Skopecs missed it by a few points. Our freshman year we weren’t close. Our sophomore year we missed it by six and last year we missed it by two. This entire time our team had been coming together more and more. And the closer we got the closer and closer we got to the podium.”
Pyle and McKinney both referenced the Skopecs, who are considered by most involved with the program to be the foundation for what happened on Nov. 3—and what will happen in the future. Seth, Kyle, Ryan and their sister, Kathryn, comprise the Skopec quadruplets. The trio of Skopec boys were seniors on the 2014 team that finished four points off of the podium.
“Something we do talk a lot about is leave it better than when you found it,” said Coach Bandy. “That’s one of the driving factors in this program. The Skopecs years ago just decided that they were going to leave this program better than when they got it. They’d come into several state qualifications on the boys side, but for them they wanted to change everything.”
Reaching the podium in his final race in a Bolivar uniform was extra special for McKinney, whose father, Larry, was a member of the last Liberator team to reach the podium in 1990.
“It had been 28 years since the boys had gotten a trophy,” said McKinney. “For me, it was kind of cool because the last time we got a trophy my dad was on the team 28 years ago. So for me, I was super excited that I was on this team that got the trophy again for Bolivar.”
“I didn’t just do it for these guys,” said Pyle. “I did it for the group that started this. For me, it wasn’t just for these guys, but for the Skopecs, and Nathan Painter, and Jacob Cruz, and Spencer Williams and everything they did for me and taking me under their wing and bringing me up. I felt good that I got this done, not just for these guys, but those boys, too. That was how I felt about it.”
The last third of the 3.1-mile race is where the Liberators and Lady Liberators do their damage. When other teams and runners are slowing down or getting tired, the Bolivar contingent is picking up steam, passing different colored-jerseys and setting the closing pace.
Lindenwood University-Belleville (Ill.) head men’s and women’s cross country coach Tim Cary has been a friend of Coach Bandy’s since preschool. Coach Cary regularly brings a group of his collegiate runners who have coaching aspirations to Jefferson City each November to watch the State race.
“He tells them, ‘Watch Bolivar,’” said Coach Bandy. “’Watch them at the two-mile marker.’ He said their jaws just all dropped. It’s what we do. We battle and we battle hard, but from the two mile to the finish our team is just something different and always has been. We are back third racers and when we hit that final mile to the finish that’s when we do our best work. That was very apparent in both races.”
Bolivar has established itself as a perennial podium contender on both the boys and girls side. Since Coach Bandy’s arrival for the 2008 season, the Liberators have qualified for State in eight of his 11 seasons, reaching the podium for the first time this season.
It’s not that Bolivar did not have any tradition at all. Gene Gabrielle coached the Liberators to the 1988 Class 3A state championship, led by individual state medalist DeWayne Miner, who would repeat as state medalist the following season. There was the 1990 third-place finish, while Nathan Poindexter notched the program’s third individual state title with medalist honors in 2001. Prior to Coach Bandy’s arrival, though, the last state qualifying effort was in 2000—a 14th-place finish.
On the girls side of things, there was no tradition. No trips to State, no individual medalists. No podiums. Not much of anything—until Coach Bandy arrived. Since 2008, the Lady Liberators have made the trip to Jefferson City nine times, including a pair of state championships. The 2016 state title was a crowning achievement for Coach Bandy.
“There are no words to describe for a coach,” said Coach Bandy. “I’ve been a goal-setter for as long as I can remember. My very first year of coaching when I was at Lebanon, I had 12 kids on my team. I wrote down a set of goals and they were comprehensive, from my daily stuff all the way through stuff that I never thought I would achieve, but man the ride was gonna be awesome. These were my long-term goals, and they may take decades and maybe never reach, and state title was at the top of it. The closer and closer we could get the better it was going to be. We just kept getting closer and closer and then you could just kind of feel it coming. Man, this really might be something that can happen. And then we did it.”
Coach Bandy recounted the career of Don Keeton, his mentor and longtime Parkview cross country coach. Keaton coached the Vikings for 32 years and according to Bandy only won one district title in cross country. Yet, Keeton is a 2004 inductee into the Missouri Track & Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“There were a tremendous amount of individuals who went through his program and he had some great teams, but the magic was just never there,” said Coach Bandy. “It wasn’t for a lack of coaching. That’s how amazing it is to have what we have got.”
In the beginning, though, a state championship was only a dream—or at least a lofty aspiration sitting atop Coach Bandy’s career goal sheet. There were no trips to State in that first season in 2008. Any visit to Jefferson City would have been to see the state capital rather than to compete for a state title.
“It has definitely been a collective effort,” said Coach Bandy of the program building that has occurred since his arrival in 2008. “We actually talk a couple times a season…we call them ‘The Originals.’ They’re a group of kids that were here when I got here. I think I had four or five the very first summer when I came in for summer training. Kara Gooch was amazing. Aaron DeShazo was my first boys state qualifier. Katie Roweton, as well. Aaron was just a sponge. He wanted to know everything. He was constantly quizzing me, “Why are we doing this? What can I do to be a better leader for the kids?’”
“Success breeds success, so I believe the current state of the program is directly related to the athletes that ran in the past,” said Vicki Newcomb, Bolivar’s middle school cross country coach and varsity assistant. “Their dedication and the stories Coach Bandy tells about them help develop the athletes we have today. The Bolivar cross country team is very close and they hold each other accountable, especially in the areas of working hard, running on weekends, doing the little things to be champions. Every athlete from the fastest to the one who struggles has a chance to leave their mark on the program.”
“They took that active role and they kind of passed the torch down,” said Coach Bandy of his early Bolivar teams. “The kids just learned how to compete. That’s one thing I’ve been blessed with since day one is just about every kid that goes through this program learns how to test themselves and take themselves to what we call ‘The Dark Place.’”
The Dark Place. Any Liberator or Lady Liberator runner of the past decade is familiar with “The Dark Place.” It’s pushing yourself farther than your own body thought it could be pushed. It’s finding out about how mentally tough one can be. It’s about a lot of things.
“One of the things that we’ve talked about this year is that very few people know their true salt,” said Coach Bandy. “Very few people are tested to their limits and know what they’re made of and these kids definitely do. There’s not a kid in this program that has not taken themselves to ‘The Dark Place,’ as we call it, and know what they’re made of.”
“The ‘Dark Place’ is when everything inside you is saying quit, you can't do this...and you take those lies and look them right in the eye, embarrass them and say, ‘This is going to hurt, but I am strong, I am capable, and I can overcome and finish,’” said Newcomb. “We call getting to the ‘Dark Place’ pushing yourself to a painful place and mentally overcoming the pain. The best runner’s high comes after a visit to the ‘Dark Place.’”
In addition to ‘The Dark Place,’ there is the “buy in.” Cross country is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. Running mile after mile, day after day, early morning after early morning—all for a few 20-minute-or-so races in the fall. Hot summer days, dark and cold fall mornings, it does not matter. Every Bolivar runner has to “buy in” to the program, and every coach and runner has their own version of what that means.
“The buy in is super important,” said Newcomb. “We have had some ups and downs in the past with athletes that thought they knew what was best for themselves or parents that tried to do things differently than our plan for their child, and it never seemed to work out the way they had expected or thought it would. As coaches we have to focus on the team as a whole, but each runner is trained as an individual, and if they skip out on miles or try to do too much injuries happen or athletes won’t peak at the right time. Coach Bandy has enough stories to back up what can happen if you follow the plan and just as many about what happens if you try to go out on your own. But in the long run individuals have to decide to buy in—they have to trust the plan.”
“Hard work is everything,” said Anna Bandy, who will continue her cross country career nearby at Southwest Baptist University next fall. “We put forth the work. Everything we did this offseason and season we did for our team. It really does pay off in the end. All those runs that we really don’t want to do, like definitely morning practices. I didn’t want to do morning practice, but every morning I’d wake up and tell myself that this was for the end result and it paid off.
“Our motto this year has been ‘Pressure is Privilege,’” added Anna. “Everything we go through and all the pressure we have is a privilege, because not everybody gets to do what we do. It’s kind of been our go-to theme this year, and we even put it on the back of our T-shirts. I think it sums up the work ethic of our team.”
“The hard work definitely paid off,” said Stimpson. “I remember some of those summer runs. I’d only have like two miles left and I just told myself, ‘I just have to do this for State. This is what it’s for.’ And I would work hard for it. I was really nervous going into State that the work wouldn’t pay off and that we wouldn’t win, and then we did win and it was just so unbelievable.”
“You have to buy in to what is happening,” said McCracken. “A good example of this is my freshman year I just went through the motions. Coach would tell the guys to run 7-to-6 and the girls to run 6-to-5. So I would run six, or the lowest amount required. But the people that are on top and the people that buy in…those are the people that go the seven. The buy-in was really hard for me and it took a long time. There’s something about running with your team on the weekends, though. It’s kind of building that family and never really being away from them, always being there for each other. There’s something about that that is really incredible and helpful.”
If you spend much time around the Liberators or Lady Liberators, you will likely hear the word “family” or some reference to the closeness of the group. The teams spend a lot of time together—A LOT of time—most of it pounding the Polk County pavement. The result is a remarkable team chemistry that shows up on race day.
“We spend a lot of time running together, but this summer we also had a lot of weekend lake trips and just a lot of team bonding time,” said Duncan. “Obviously they’re my team and I love them. Even without the extra team bonding we would have been close, but all of that just made us feel like a family and there’s not anyone here that I wouldn’t have gone out and run my hardest for.”
“This team really came together last year,” said McKinney. “Last year we only had one senior on the varsity group, so we only lost one runner from our varsity squad. Coming into this year we knew each other. We were a family by then. This year really culminated in us being a family that can never be separated at this point. With all my brothers around me, we all knew we weren’t going to let each other down, so this entire year was about us accomplishing that one goal we all wanted and that was to get a trophy.”
The idea of family hit really close to home for Green, a junior who moved into the Bolivar school district from Texas. Back in the Lone Star State, Green ran cross country with her older sister, who graduated and is now in college.
“The change was really hard on me, because I ran with my sister in Texas,” said Green. “I moved this year and I didn’t have her because she’s now in college, so it was really motivating to have all these girls around me because I consider them my sisters now. They’re amazing people and Coach Bandy’s a great coach so it really helped the transition a lot.”
Freshman Cale Thiessen attended Polk County Christian School through eighth grade, so this is his first year in the Bolivar public schools. He had a choice to make early in his high school career—play soccer or run cross country.
“I ultimately decided to run cross country over soccer because of the team,” said Thiessen, who was the Liberators’ No. 5 runner at State. “The atmosphere was like that of a family. I have no regrets about not playing soccer whatsoever. I enjoyed the team bonding a lot. At first, I was a little apprehensive of hanging out with the guys, but they let me know they wanted me there and that helped me a lot. Once I started hanging out with them, I began to feel like part of the team. I got to know the guys over the summer, but I really started feeling comfortable with the guys after our first meet. I think cross country is made great through the relationships formed within the team and everybody working as hard as they can for each other, not just themselves.”
“It’s been a really good journey for me,” said McCracken, a junior who started running cross country as a freshman. “A lot of that has come from my team inspiring me. I was not very good my freshman year, not at all actually. My next year I decided that I wanted to be a part of this family that they’ve created, so I worked for that and they helped me to get to where I could be a bigger part of this family that they’ve created.
“The only thing I ever really wanted out of this sport is I wanted to be with my friends up at the top and my family up at the top,” added McCracken. “These people here are more than family now. I mean they’re definitely a second family, and sometimes they are family that I’ll go to before my actual family. I know that every one of them will always be there for me and I just want to make sure that I’m there for them.”
“The most important thing is the bonding we’ve had this year,” said sophomore Ethan Billinglea. “It’s definitely different than it was last year. We hang out all the time now and that’s had a big effect on things. Even just running together every day it’s just so much different than it would be if we were running on our own. A lot of people have stepped up this year. Running every day was a big adjustment, and now when we run on the weekends everyone pretty much shows up. It’s not required, but everyone still does it and it’s important that we do.”
The family dynamic extends to siblings, too. Many of the current crop of Bolivar runners grew up watching older brothers or sisters run cross country at Bolivar, tagging along with the parents to race courses near and far. Freshman London Wilson grew up watching her older sisters Lindsey and Lauren run for the Lady Liberators.
“Lindsey came to the State meet and it brought back all the memories of when I was younger watching her,” said London, who started running cross country herself in eighth grade. “I don’t remember all of them, but I remember small parts of it and it really brought back memories of Lindsey. It was really good for Lindsey, too, to be there. They (Lindsey and Lauren) both had Coach Bandy, and he’s like their biggest hero and role model, so to have him there too was just really special.”
In addition to the familial aspects of the two teams, both the Liberators and Lady Liberators are strong in their faith. They know that nothing is possible without the One who has given them their talents, abilities and health.
“Our team knows where to give the glory,” said Newcomb. “Our captains lead the team in prayer before every practice and race. We may be a sport in a public school but faith in the Lord—and family—are very important to our program. We know that none of the success would be possible without God's grace, the talents He has given each of us, and we give Him ALL the glory. God placed us in these positions to train athletes to be good people, and we will do our best to do just that and to honor Him in all we do.”
All of the time spent together crystallizes everyone’s focus on the ultimate prize. For the Lady Liberators, that was another state championship. For the Liberators, it was a trip up the podium and winning a trophy for the first time in 28 years.
“I remember telling Will and Ethan that all I wanted to do was win a trophy,” said Pyle, who will run cross country at Maryville University in St. Louis next season. “I could care less about being on the podium individually. All I wanted was to be in the top four because we’ve tried so many times. That’s all I cared about.”
One key attribute of any Bolivar team of the past decade is pack running. If you see one Liberator (or Lady Liberator) at a race, chances are you will see another blue and gold jersey close by. The pack running strategy under Coach Bandy’s tutelage has helped take the Bolivar cross country programs to perennial podium contention status.
The lineage of the pack running strategy has really good genes. Hall of Fame genes, in fact. Legendary West Plains cross country coach Joe Bill Dixon—a 2001 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame—has guided the Zizzers to 13 state championships and the Lady Zizzers to 11 state titles. He is a major proponent of pack running and its benefits for team success.
“It is a subject of controversy with some who really don’t understand running, and some who are focused on individuals only,” said Bandy of his pack running strategy. “It is something that I learned from Joe Bill Dixon. If you look up his total statistics, your jaw will drop. He is one of a kind. He’s also got the most individual state champions of any coach. They preach team with everything. Pack running is their thing. They run as a pack and as a unit. They’ve won state titles without a single All-State athlete. They just ran so tight and so close that they were 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 and won a state title without a single kid who won an individual medal. He figured out the formula a long time ago and the rest of us have kind of been jumping on his coattails. We’ve had some teams here that that’s what they were known for, that pack running. It wins, but it also creates great individuals.”
“Everything I know about pack running I learned from Coach Bandy,” said Newcomb. “At the middle school level, we try to pair up and push one another but the true pack running takes place at the varsity level and in smaller groups at the JV level. It is all about pushing a runner to their ‘next level’ of running by circling around them and teaching them that they are capable of a faster pace. Lots of encouragement is spoken in those packs from teammate to teammate. It is pretty special to watch.”
“Coach Bandy had us pack running a lot more than we ever had before,” said Pyle of this season. “We had maybe four or five races where we were all out. To be able to run with them, the pack running was a good strategy. For me to be able to slow down and just watch us run as a unit. That’s what brought me up as an individual. It gave me the confidence to know that they were going to do their job, so I can just go out and concentrate on being our number one and scoring as low as I can because of them. That’s all I cared about this season was scoring as low as I could so that we could succeed.”
“My goal every race was to stick with Pyle or die trying,” said Bowling. “I died trying a lot, but I tried sticking with him. It was on my goal sheet. Also on my goal sheet was to be our number two and I got that done as well.”
There is a pipeline of talent running through the Bolivar program. The pipeline begins at the middle school level and runs through the high school. It’s a big reason why the Lady Liberators will be a major threat to repeat next season with all but one runner back next fall. And while the Liberators will lose a few key pieces in Pyle, McKinney and Feugate, there is plenty of talent in the program for another podium finish.
“We spend a lot of time invested in our middle schoolers and building relationships with them,” said Coach Bandy. “We just coach collaboratively. Our high school kids spend a lot of time with the middle schoolers and build relationships with them. At the cross country meets, we are all there together. I have tried to build my schedule around having middle school meets and high school meets at the same time, so there’s this connection between the top and bottom.”
“When you have young athletes running on the sidewalks and roads of Bolivar, it is important to have as many eyes as possible out supervising athletes,” said Newcomb. “Our middle school and high school athletes train together. Each runner is trained as an individual, so that they can become the best runner possible. The high school athletes show the middle school athletes what it means to be a Liberator.
“My role as the middle school coach is to point out what the expectations are: finish runs hard, talk to every runner that you pass or get passed by with a word of encouragement, after they finish their assigned distance for the day, until the last runner comes in they are to walk back out and run in the next runner,” added Newcomb. “But the most important thing that I do is tell the kids that not only are we training our bodies, but we have to train our brain. Our brain tells us what we are doing is hard, that we can't do it, and as a runner you have to train your brain by continuing to get tough and push through those moments of doubt. So as the middle school coach I train students to run farther than they think they can, celebrate every success, and to feel connected with a team.”
Coach Bandy has become as well known for his pre-race “get hype” speeches as he is for his teams’ success. Before any race that includes Bolivar, look for the huddled-up, blue-and-gold-clad runners. In the middle of the huddle will be a bearded mad man, his voice rising and his face reddening as he unleashes his latest “run through a brick wall” motivational speech.
“Coach Bandy is an honorable man and he knows distance running, but even more so he knows and cares about kids,” said Newcomb. “Coach Bandy is a great story teller and motivator. He is the backbone of the program and makes every athlete feel like the most valuable runner on our team. He is also a good listener and the athletes depend on him for much more than just their running workouts. He is a father figure to more than just the Bandy girls. Our coaching philosophy is to teach kids about life through running. Things in real life don't always go the way we want them, just like in running. Some runs are just bad. But who we are as people, how we treat others, working hard, being committed, teamwork, are important to who the athletes will be as adults.”
“He’s been one of the biggest motivators in my life,” said Pyle. “He and my dad have been the two most influential men in my life. I can’t thank him enough for all he’s done. He has been a big inspiration. Everything he says and every pre-race talk I soak that in so much because my goal in the future is to be just like him. I want to be a coach and I want to be that type of inspiration to the next generation. I want to make other people better and he’s been a big motivator for that.”
The pre-game speech for the State meet had actually been brewing in Coach Bandy’s mind for a while. Back on Aug. 20, Coach Bandy read something on Twitter that stuck with him. It was a short poem of sorts, one that encapsulated the attitude of the Bolivar cross country teams.
The devil whispers into the warrior’s ear,
“The storm is too great, you will not survive.”
And the warrior takes a breath and says,
“I am the storm!”
“That to me was this group,” said Coach Bandy. “That was them and this powerful thing that they’ve created. I knew from the time I read it that that’s what needed to be said standing there (at State) to give them the juice. That ‘I am the storm’ that they put on their hands was just my way of reminding them that they can be something great.”
When the starting gun fired, each Bolivar runner took to the State course with “I am the storm” written on their hand.
“The mindset with that is we are a team,” said Anna Bandy. “We are one. A storm is big and causes mass destruction. Us being one as a team, we are able to go in there and cause our own destruction. We fought really hard. Storms are powerful, and we were powerful as a team. So us being the storm, that mindset helped us with our race and helped us win. It was very motivating.”
“Coach came out and gave us our ‘I am the storm’ pep talk,” said McKinney. “We’re a laughy bunch and we like to joke and have a good time but at that moment it was just quiet. It was the quiet before the storm. It was emotional. I was about to cry before we even started racing because I knew I put all my trust in these boys and I knew they would not let me down and they didn’t.
“That’s the most important thing about this sport to me,” added McKinney. “In most other sports, there’s a lot of things where it’s individual. If you miss a shot in basketball, it can be your fault that you didn’t score or win or whatever, but in cross country it’s all team. It’s all we focus on. Yes, I got All-State individually, but I didn’t care about that. Yes I do, but I care more about the trophy. That was my entire goal this season.”
The goal for next season will be trophy or bust for both teams. The Lady Liberators will definitely miss Anna Bandy, but the uber-talented returnees will be a favorite to repeat in Jefferson City next fall. The Liberators definitely do not want to go another 28 years before registering a podium finish and have the talent to make another run next season.
“I definitely want to try to repeat next year,” said Duncan. “That would be awesome. As an individual, I’d like to place higher. That should be everybody’s goal, just to improve each year. But as a team, I think we could definitely do it again. That would definitely be awesome.”
“I want to keep what Anna built here alive, because she’s really brought the girls team together,” said Emily Bandy. “I feel like if I’m able to do that then I’ll make her proud. Hundred percent love for my homies!”
“I want to try to keep repeating what happened this year, because this year was gold,” said London Wilson.
“I don’t think anything will change in terms of what we’re doing,” said Billinglea. “But it’ll be important to make sure everyone is involved in the team.”
There is another storm brewing for 2019. Watch out for Bolivar. Watch out for that pack of runners in the blue-and-gold jerseys racing to the finish line. Racing straight to the bearded guy with the look of pride on his face and the gleam in his eye. The one who lives and breathes cross country. The one who is intimately familiar with “The Dark Place.” The one who has bought in year after year.
“I’ve done everything,” said Coach Bandy. “I’ve played football, I wrestled, played soccer. You name it I was involved in it as a kid. Cross country, to me, is the greatest team sport and probably the greatest individual sport because not only do you have your own individual battles where you have to beat those demons in your mind that tell you to stop or to slow down it hurts too much, but then at the same time you’ve got to be there for your team, because every runner counts. Top five score, number six is your tie-breaker, and number seven is your displacer. To me, cross country is the greatest sport there is.”