Steamboat Springs As it turns out, a top-tier high school cross-country team is built much the same way other successful sports teams are constructed.
Moffat County High School cross-country coach Todd Trapp said he builds his team by encouraging his varsity athletes and challenging his junior varsity runners. He keeps a close eye on the minor leagues - the middle school - and tries to keep athletes training through the spring and summer.
And sometimes, someone trades you a young Brett Favre for next to nothing, or you take Tom Brady 199th in the draft or Albert Pujols 409th.
Hayden High School junior Chris Zirkle bears little in common with Favre, Brady or Pujols, and he certainly can't yet match their championship resumes. But he is the fastest boy on the Moffat County cross-country team, which is one of the best Class 4A teams in the state.
And as far as the Bulldogs are concerned, Zirkle fell out of thin air.
Zirkle's most recent triumph came Saturday when he bested all comers at the Bulldogs' only home cross-country meet, winning the 5-kilometer boys race in 16 minutes, 54 seconds. That kind of athletic success is a far cry from what Zirkle first experienced in high school.
He started out on the Hayden football team but was just another number on the sidelines, a skinny freshman trying not to drown in an orange-and-black jersey.
"I got pushed around a lot because I was so small," Zirkle said. "I thought, 'Man, I don't know if football is going to work out.'"
It didn't, but Zirkle found inspiration from his sister, Laura. She already was regularly making the trip to Craig from Hayden to run with Trapp and the Bulldogs.
She finished four years on the team and graduated from Hayden in May.
Chris Zirkle began training in Moffat County's offseason program and quickly established himself as one of the top threats on a perennially fast team.
"You could tell he was a runner," Trapp said. "He ran with us a few times that summer, then he went to our camp in Grand Lake with us. Once we started the season, it became apparent he'd probably be our best runner."
He was. Zirkle led the team all season long - all the way to a second-place finish in the regional and an appearance at the state meet.
Despite almost immediate success, it didn't all come easy for Zirkle.
He had already - and still does - compete with the Hayden track team, so he certainly wasn't new to racing.
Still, cross-country is a different animal than track, and it took some adjusting to.
Even by the end of his sophomore season, his first with the Moffat County team, Zirkle was still getting used to being at the front of the race, to the mass of competitors at larger meets and to the added dimension of working as a part of a team.
He finished 49th in his first trip to the state meet. It was far from what he'd imagined possible while still snapping on a chinstrap a year before but also not what he'd been hoping for at the start of the race.
"After that state meet, I realized I have to stop running like an idiot," he said. "I realized I had to starting hanging on to someone, stop taking off so fast and stuff. So I started taking it a little slower at the first race this year and realized that worked for me."
It's hasn't only worked out well for Zirkle, it's worked out well for the whole team. Moffat County easily won Saturday's meet, with teammates Alfredo Lebron and Alex McCoy finishing second and third, respectively.
The team already has earned second-place finishes among 4A teams at two of the largest meets in which it has competed, and the Bulldogs are slotted second in the class's coaches poll.
That's not all because of Zirkle, of course. Moffat County has a strong cross-country tradition and hasn't missed qualifying for state since Trapp started eight years ago.
"We have a very strong team this year, and they all push each other," Trapp said. They all are feeding off one another, so he's helping push them, and they're helping him."
Trapp is cautiously optimistic about just how good his team can get.
"We can get into the top four at state if everything goes right and we stay healthy," he said.
When pressed, he opened up.
"If we have a great day, maybe some teams don't run quite as well; we might have a chance to win a state title," he said. "But that means everything has to go great, we have to continue improving and every kid has to keep improving."
Zirkle admits he still has work to do.
He's been adding one or two extra runs every week, logging miles early in the morning before he attends class in Hayden.
He returns home at noon and the second half of his day is spent being home schooled. Then he drives the 20 minutes to Craig.
"We have to keep working hard in practice, and we have to get our pack a little closer together," he said. "Then I think we have a shot."
Trapp has seen all the progress with his team and with Zirkle.
"If Chris has a great day, keeps improving, he could be in the top 10 this year," he said. "If he improves as much between his junior year and his senior year as did between his sophomore and junior years, anything could happen."
- To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 871-4253 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org