Our cross country team after the boys got their medals and brownies at this morning’s Wendell Park Early Bird Invitational. Pictured (L-R) are: Coach Victor Swepson, Joseph Campisi, Michal Swepson, Eric Young, Thomas Dang, Andy Klappenbach, Jack Puryear, Nikki Khoshnoodi, Madison Daniel, Katie Dixon (did not compete).

An old and soon-to-be-obsolete joke, told at bars and emblazoned on t-shirts around UNC Charlotte for decades, makes a tongue-in-cheek jab at the Niners’ lack of pigskin.

Charlotte 49ers Football:  Undefeated since 1946.

As we’ve built up Research Triangle High School’s athletic program, we’ve made similar cracks.  We don’t have many sports, we have no on-campus facilities, and we only have underclassmen, so we don’t expect to be particularly good at much in our early years.  So we figured we might as well enjoy our unblemished marks until we, you know, actually competed.

But that, as they say, is why they play the games.

This morning, the Raptors made their debut in high school athletics at the Wendell Park Early Bird Invitational, hosted by East Wake High School’s cross country team.  Not wanting to miss school history, Eric and I got up early – not quiz bowl tournament early, but pretty early nonetheless – and made the drive out to Wendell.  Our coach, RTHS parent and former college cross country runner Victor Swepson, had our young squad going through drills when we arrived about 45 minutes before the start of the boys’ open race (we didn’t compete in the varsity races that took place earlier in the morning).  We looked a wee bit ragtag without real uniforms – they’re about to be ordered – but the guys were pretty loose and looked ready to go as their race time rolled around.  Coach Swepson gathered them around, gave them one last pep talk, finished it with a bringing-in of the hands and a cheer of “1, 2, 3, RAPTORS!!!” that I could hear about 100 yards away, and sent the guys off to the starting line.  Eric and I, both cross country novices, stood on top of the hill near the first stretch of the course to capture school history on camera.

After the gun fired and the 100-or-so runners took off, we went with our parents and coaches to a spot down the course that the runners would pass twice during the race (which, for people who don’t know much about cross country, is a 5k, or 3.1 miles).  Several minutes later, we saw the “pace car” (A Gator utility vehicle) come around the corner about a hundred yards off, and shortly thereafter, a runner wearing a nondescript white jersey leading everyone by a decent amount.

Eric had the same reaction as me as we squinted to see: “Wow, is that….?”

Yes, it was.  It was RTHS freshman Madison Daniel, a junior Olympian in the 1-mile and 2-mile track and field events, beating the field.  Michal Swepson, our coach’s son, was in 4th at that point, and three more of ours were close behind.

That was cool, I thought to myself.  I guess we’ll see if we can keep it up.

Several minutes later, here came the Gator again, and it was again followed by Madison.  But this time, there was no one else in sight.  Madison passed by us and went around the corner, and we waited to see more runners.

And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, here came Michal, in 2nd.  Two more of ours, Andy Klappenbach and Jack Puryear, were running in the top ten.  It was at this point that I started to get really excited.  Eric, Victor, all of our parents and families, and I sprinted across the park – well, to me it was a sprint – to see the finish.

Madison Daniel approaching the finish line, with no one else in sight.

Madison continued to smoke everyone, crossing the finish line in 17:54, a time that would’ve gotten him a sixth-place finish in the varsity race.  Over a minute later, Michal came across in second at 19:20.  The Raptors kept coming – Andy finished 7th, Jack right behind him in 8th, and Eric Young (our tallest runner by far) in 25th.  Thomas Dang and Joseph Campisi, two of our more novice runners, finished the race in times I certainly couldn’t post in a 5k.

I spent the next ten minutes or so running around and finding the guys.  Madison was the first one I came across.  “Dude,” I said to my 5th period history student, “that was amazing!”  He smiled and shrugged as if to say it was just another day at the office for him.  All the other guys were considerably more excited with how they did.  They kept talking about brownies, and how they were hopefully going to get brownies, much to my confusion (I later learned that one of the prizes that the winning team would get was some Little Debbie brownies).

Nikki Khoshnoodi at the finish line in the girls’ race.

Before they would find out about the brownies, though, we still had the girls’ race to get through.  We have more than one girl on the cross country team, but only one ran this morning.  Despite not having any teammates running with her, Nikki Khoshnoodi finished in the top half of the field as an individual, placing 21st.  One of my favorite things that I saw today was seeing the guys include her in everything they did.  When she had to go warm up for the girls’ race, the boys – who had to be exhausted – went down to the starting line and ran through drills with her.  Then, as she approached the finish line at the end of her race, several of them ran alongside the ropes cheering her on as she crossed the line.  Camaraderie is strong with this bunch.

My other favorite parts of the day?  First, seeing four of our runners getting top-10 medals at the awards ceremony, and hearing murmurs of “Who are these kids?” every time our school name was cried out by the emcee.  And the sweetest announcement of all: “Your men’s open race champions, the Raptors of Research Triangle High!”  It wasn’t even close, either – we were way ahead of the rest of the field.  Also, watching the kids try to figure out how to evenly divide up the brownies they had won was a hoot.  We can run some cross country, but I think our math teachers have job security.

The school has been open for ten days, and we need a trophy case.

Of course, tougher meets are coming – like the Jungle Run in Fayetteville next week, when we’ll be running in the varsity race.  So I guess our undefeated days are probably numbered.  But it was great that our team had such a positive first experience, and it was awesome to see everyone’s comments of encouragement and excitement on the RTHS Facebook and Twitter pages as we posted pictures and results.  I have to imagine that having a successful athletic team so early in the school’s history will do wonders for school spirit and our sense of community.  I think I speak for everyone at RTHS when I say that we could not be prouder.  I think I’ll bake the team some real brownies as a reward.

And for at least one more week, we’re undefeated.