In July, Matt and Angie Brass were uncertain if the Sandpoint High School cross-country team would even have a full season, let alone compete at State Championships. Several months later, the boys’ and girls’ teams were celebrating their eighth straight regional team titles.
No one knew what this year would hold. The team faced different challenges than normal due to the pandemic. There was a constant focus toward staying healthy and ensuring the team didn’t have to quarantine; masks and social distancing became a part of every practice and meet; and there were no high fives or hugs to celebrate big moments. But the team pulled through, resilient, tight-knit and committed as ever.
“Each year there is something that sets that group apart, as a team is a living, breathing unit, dynamic and unique since there are always people graduating and new people joining,” explain the Brasses. “For this year, there was a greater amount of gratitude and focus in a year where they could have just as easily have been distracted and left feeling disappointed about the loss of normalcy in life.”
Teammates arrived each week happy and ready to embrace the positive in a time when it was easy to find the negative. The Brasses focused on providing space for each athlete to be honest about the struggles they were facing, and the result was a close, open and supportive team.
The Brasses have been coaching Sandpoint cross country and track and field for 15 years now, and in that time the boys have won 11 regional titles and two state trophies, while the girls have taken home nine regional titles, five state trophies and two state championships.
Sports was a big part of both Angie and Matt’s school years, and each had coaches who left a lasting impact—in particular Angie’s Sandpoint High School cross-country and track coach Cheryl Klein, who still mentors her to this day. “Running has always been a constant and a passion in my life, and getting to share that with the young people we coach and be a part of their lives is a way to pay that forward!” says Angie.
They both now bring this dedication and passion to their roles as head coaches, focusing on building a team that is about connection and relationships more than anything. To this end, about 10 years ago they established a set of 10 core values they hold their athletes to and have existing team members mentor incoming athletes.
“We can use the framework of sports to teach dedication, hard work, humility, teamwork, contribution, how to be a good teammate, communication, personal responsibility, time management and much more,” reflect the Brasses. “In what is often a period of growth or even a turbulent time of life, we try to provide an oasis where these important lessons can be taught, and true bonds of friendship, sister/brotherhood can be formed.”
And the results have gone so much farther than any regional or state win. “This team has been like a second family to me,” reflects Katelyn Greenway, who joined the team while transitioning to SHS from a private school. “They're always there for me when I need them the most, and running with them is such an honor. It’s a group of amazing, strong, intelligent, kind and genuine people.” For Katelyn’s mom Kelly, it was incredibly memorable to watch her daughter improve and grow as a result of her personal striving and encouragement from the team.
For Katelyn and fellow teammate Devin McDaniel, the season was influential in multiple ways. “Just from a couple of months I learned so much, and so many life lessons to take with me,” says Devin. “I also loved finishing every race, having so much joy that I was able to run with and for my teammates, and knowing that I couldn’t have done that well without them.”
Devin’s mom, Vilma, watched her daughter grow as a runner after being forced to retire from gymnastics due to the pandemic. Devin had never been a fan of running, but in a few months with the team she not only became a runner but developed a deep love of running. “She made new friends, built new bonds and relationships, which made the transition to high school so much easier and happier. The coaches went above and beyond. Their dedication to the team truly shows. And we are incredibly grateful,” says Vilma.
This year, achieving their eighth straight regional team title was an exciting and dramatic ending to a year that was unexpected but produced such exceptional team growth, unity, support and encouragement.
“Eighth straight regional titles on both sides was a great last way to end the regular season meets before state!” say the Brasses. “We are really proud of the way the entire team came together, and instead of seeing what was different/couldn’t do because of COVID, they embraced every opportunity; and embodying gratitude really made it a season where we were all in the moment and not looking ahead to the next race, the next thing, the state meet, but instead, appreciating the here and now.”
Looking ahead to next year, what is the team looking forward to? Normalcy. The Brasses are excited to see the kids talking without masks, able to support and encourage each other with high fives, handshakes and hugs in addition to words. “Those things seem so small and are taken for granted, but they are an important daily part of connecting with people and mentoring kids,” they add.