CARY — The cross-country team fills up an entire section of bleachers at Green Hope High School’s stadium – a dozen or more students squeezed into each of the 10 rows in front of the press box, their running shoes shuffling and their voices clamoring until the after-school meeting starts.
Even with a few dozen members out at a competition, the assembled group is pushing 200, the largest such team in the state, and one of the largest in the country, encompassing about 10 percent of the school’s students.
And they’re also good. Both the boys and girls teams regularly bring home regional titles. This year, the girls are contending for their fifth straight state title; last year, they finished in the top 10 nationally. The boys last took the state title in 2010.
Coach Michael Miragliuolo, 39, has built the team from 25 runners to its current 225 over 12 years, taking all comers despite the logistical challenges because he believes in the power of high school sports to change students’ lives.
“I wish everybody in the school could do it,” says Miragliuolo, who ran cross-country and played other sports as a high-schooler. “I just think it’s such a good thing for them health-wise to be running, and learning from working as a team. I see 200 and I go, ‘Why don’t we have 300?’”
Miragliuolo (pronounced MARE-ee-oh-la) is proud of his team’s recent titles, but he’s equally thrilled with the improvements of the team’s less-athletic members.
One of his top runners can finish a 5K race in 16 minutes, but a senior at this meeting earned a gift card for finishing just shy of 24 minutes. Another, a freshman, was honored for improving his time from 26 to 21 minutes since joining the team.
And even with a team so large, Miragliuolo does not forgo the personal touches. Team manager Trish Colberg recalls a neighbor whose daughter – not a top runner – received a letter from him after leaving the team, asking if he could do anything to help her return.
“He really does a good job of making every kid feel special,” says Colberg, whose has two children on the current team and one in college who also ran under Miragliuolo. “It’s a great opportunity for all of these kids to have something to be proud of and to be a part of.”
Building a big team
Miragliuolo was born in South Carolina and spent most of his youth in Bangor, Maine, where he grew up playing sports. His father was the coach of his high school cross-country team.
Miragliuolo says he ran cross-country mainly to keep in shape for basketball, baseball and football. Back then, he dreamed of playing professional basketball, but he didn’t play at the college level.
He decided to follow his father’s footsteps, studying history at the University of Tennessee and quickly moving into a job as a coach and teacher back in Maine.
He was there a few years before he got the offer at Green Hope and eagerly returned to the South.
Miragliuolo was hired as a baseball coach and history teacher and now teaches Advanced Placement government courses – a demanding course for a coach, particularly in the spring, when he is preparing students for AP exams during the day and coaching baseball at night.
He says he refused several times to take over the cross-country team but eventually relented.
When he sat down to figure out standards for letting students on the team, he decided to just let anyone join.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy. Everybody could be a part of this,’” he says. “We don’t want to lose those kids that wouldn’t have any other opportunity to be part of a team.”
He had about 25 students when he took over the team in 2001, and for a few years he walked the halls asking people to join, adding 20 to 30 students a year.
Then those students started asking their friends to try it, creating an ever-widening circle of runners from all of the school’s social groups.
“There’s people from every clique in cross-country,” says Ellen Emmerson, a senior on the team.
Some, like Emmerson, stay all four years. Others don’t. Miragliuolo recently asked one of his classes of seniors how many had run cross-country for at least one year; 19 of 35 had.
About five years in, Miragliuolo found himself the sole coach of 140 students. He worried that the competitive runners weren’t getting enough specialized coaching and since has recruited several assistants.
Learning to succeed
His season starts during the summer, when he makes sure to learn everyone’s name – and to figure out which students are likely to be competitive. They don’t all have to be, he says, though all will compete.
“You can do if for different reasons: to be social, to get exercise, to pad your résumé. I don’t care,” he says. “They just need to show up to practice, do what we tell them to do and work hard.”
Two paid coaches train the best runners. About 100 entry-level runners – the freshmen and recreational runners and many who are new to athletics – work with three volunteer coaches.
Miragliuolo works directly with the middle group of about 80 students, including the ones he’s grooming for the next level. He also oversees the whole enterprise, which can mean hours of tracking scores, logging attendance and answering parent emails.
He also gets help from parents, who organize pasta night socials and input all the runners’ times on a website that he later mines for trends and individual accomplishments.
Within each group, students work in companies of 10, each with a student leader who helps run drills and with other tasks. Movement up the ranks is fluid. A student might move up to a more advanced group is he improves his time, but also because he seems particularly dedicated or just loves running.
The season will end next week for most students, while the elite runners will compete well into November.
At the recent practice, the team split into groups after meeting in the bleachers. One group did a scavenger hunt with their cellphones as they ran through the neighborhood around the school. Another did a series of short runs and other drills at the track, and a third played soccer.
Freshman Drew Morton smiled through every lap around the track. He started with the beginners this year, and has moved up to the middle group, surprising himself with his new-found speed.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t really keep up,” Morton says. “Now I want to push myself even harder.”
It’s exactly the kind of performance Miragliuolo cherishes: “I love it when a kid does something that they didn’t think they could do,” he says.
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