The cross country team roster at Mason-Clark Middle School in East St. Louis is so long that the runners have to practice in color-coded shifts.
On this seasonable September day, it’s the red squad’s turn to run, but that didn’t stop some members of the gold group from showing up for the extra work.
Coach Cortez Branch herded the more than 50 middle schoolers on a four-block trek down 57th Street, from the school’s gym to the freshly-mowed pasture on the northeast side of Jones Park where orange cones mark off the one-mile course.
That’s less than half the team, but the neighbors still stepped outside to watch the parade of young athletes.
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“They must think I’m the Pied Piper or something,” Branch said. “This has nothing to do with me, though — these kids are here because they want to be here.”
East St. Louis District 189 has a robust athletic program, with basketball, baseball, cheerleading, softball, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. But none of them pack it in like cross country, a sport that tests both physical stamina and mental discipline as the miles mount.
We don’t judge them, we don’t look at size, we don’t look at color, we don’t look at race. If you can make your grades, be respectful and if you can walk, then you can run for me anytime.
Coach Cortez Branch
Mason-Clark Middle School has an enrollment of little more than 800 students in the fifth through eighth grades. As of Wednesday, Sept. 6, Branch had 112 runners on his cross country roster.
By comparison, the biggest public high school in Illinois — Adlai E. Stevenson High in the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire — has 134 runners on its roster and 4,200 students in its classrooms.
“I still have kids approaching me, asking if it’s too late to come out and run,” Branch said. “It’s OK with me because we don’t turn anybody away. If you can walk, you can run.”
Rewards of running
Branch, a teacher’s assistant and track coach at East St. Louis High School, started the middle school program with 31 runners in 2014. It’s grown annually ever since.
The team participates in Illinois Elementary School Association events and may travel to any of the 40 other IESA areas in its region. But the competition isn’t what’s important to Branch.
The rewards of distance running, he says, are in the process, not the result.
“You don’t have to be first to be a winner,” said Branch, who is in his 20th year as a coach in District 189. “If you can’t run the full way, it’s OK. But if you can run a little farther or a little bit faster the next time out, you’ve achieved something. That’s what it’s about.”
Branch demands only that each of his runners make passing grades and that they are respectful to teachers and classmates. He tells them to dream big, stay off social media and to “shock the world and do your best.”
This is where it starts. These streets will suck you up, but if can move them to something positive, it’s worth it.
Coach Cortez Branch
All are important lessons for teenagers, Branch says, especially in a community where, statistically, 35 percent of the students live below poverty level and are more likely to go home to a single-parent household.
“We talk about things like self-esteem and being part of something that’s positive ...” he said. “This is where it starts. These streets will suck you up, but if you can move them to something positive, it’s worth it.”
At a practice last week, Branch told the students they should finish the “short” training course in nine minutes.
Some of them ran too hard, too early to maintain the pace. They were found scattered along the course, gulping air with their hands rested on their hips or clasped across the tops of their heads.
A few others fell back into clusters of chatting and laughing friends, more interested in socializing than lowering their times.
And then there was sixth grader Gabby Smith, 11, who just the day before had run the two-mile course with seven-minute splits.
She idolizes her mother “because she took care of my granny when she went through breast cancer.”
“I look up to my mom and my sister, because when they go through things they always keep doing and don’t give up,” Smith said. “I just want to be a star in cross country and track and get a scholarship to get to college.”
It’s OK with me because we don’t turn anybody away. If you can walk, you can run.
Coach Cortez Branch
Onyka Handy, a 13-year-old eighth grader, is a multi-sport athlete at Mason-Clark, but she favors distance running. Encouraged by a sister and cousin who also run, she hopes athletics will be her ticket to a career.
“My dream is to go to college for sports and for academics,” she said. “I love math and would like to be a lawyer and a teacher.”
Toriona Brown, also an eighth-grader, was trying out sports for the very first time when she signed on for cross country program this fall. She would like to try track someday, but is testing her running ability under Coach Branch.
She and classmate Darielle Ivory say they’ll keep coming back largely because of Branch.
“He is a really, really fun coach,” Ivory said. “He’s understanding and he’s nice. He’s like my uncle.”
Branch is a product of East St. Louis himself, a former track and football star at Lincoln High School, who went on to Mississippi Valley State University and a master’s degree from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri.
He says he is motivated to give to his runners that which was given to him by Nino Fennoy, his high school track coach. Successfully and consistently delivering on that message, he says, is why the middle school cross country program is so popular.
“They just need see that somebody actually cares about them,” Branch said. “We don’t judge them, we don’t look at size, we don’t look at color, we don’t look at race. If you can make your grades, be respectful and if you can walk, then you can run for me anytime.”