By Mike Easterling • Photos by Chris Jensen
The boys cross country team at Randolph School won a record eight straight state championships heading into this year’s meet, but while that’s an impressive feat, it’s not something coach James “Twig’’ Terwilliger emphasizes to his Raiders each year.
“I try not to talk to them about keeping the streak going,’’ he said earlier this season as the team prepared for the Nov. 9 state meet in Moulton. “I don’t want them to feel any success is just part of the streak. I want them to feel it’s their own season.’’
The championship streak is nice, but that’s not at the root of what drives Terwilliger to coach.
“It would be easy to say winning state championships is the what I enjoy the most,’’ he said. “ I do admit that of course that’s one of our main goals at the start of the season, but I can’t say it is what I enjoy the most.
“I’m a competitor by nature. Competing is what drives me to get out of bed each and every day. I love taking an athlete who really doesn’t have much athletic ability, but has the drive to train and train consistently and develop that person into an athlete who is able to compete at very high level. You work so hard for those brief moments of success with those athletes.”
Terwilliger found his love of cross country sort of by accident. He started running for his first high school – Waterville Central in New York – he said because his “friends were doing it.’’
As a member of that team, his competitive fire intensified under the guidance of coach Dan Mosney.
“Even though the teams he had then were not that strong,’’ Terwilliger said, “he was very motivating and also very firm with his decisions.’’
Terwilliger’s father was transferred to Hamilton in Northwest Alabama midway through his junior year, and after finishing his prep career with the Tigers he moved on to Bevill State Community College under scholarship. While there, he found his second mentor in coach Steve Dudley.
“He was so electric and very outspoken,’’ Terwilliger said. “ I remember him screaming at the top of his lungs at me, beating his hands on the ground at the 400 meter to go mark at nationals, screaming ‘We’re doing it! We’re doing it!’ ’’
Twerwilliger later ran for UAH for two years before launching his coaching career.
At Randolph, the Raiders started the state championship run in 2005 by winning their first Class 3A-4A title at the Oakville Indian Mounds and followed with 3A-4A crowns in ’06 and ’07. The Raiders then won championships in 3A when the classes were split into separate divisions in ’08, ’09, ’10 and ’11.
Even a move up to a 4A classification last season couldn’t interrupt the Raiders’ run as they won again.
Randolph obviously has benefitted from a high caliber of runners.
“Usually the kids who come to us are very talented,’’ Terwilliger said. “A lot of physical ability. And for the most part they have a pretty good work ethic. That’s the biggest things.
“There are always those kids that need nudging or pushing to get going, but you have to have self-discipline to even entertain the idea of trying the sport. The kids in the past have been very motivated.’’
While cross country could easily be classified as a solitary sport, there’s very much a team aspect involved. The squad trains together and that’s where Terwilliger said esprit de corps is built.
“A lot of (motivation) is not necessarily done at the races,’’ he said. “We motivate them at practice and on those long runs. At races they just line up and go. Our sport is ninety percent mental. If they’re not prepared by staying consistent with their work no matter how talented they are they won’t make it through.
“They have to stay consistent with workouts. And what we ask them to do we try to make it make sense, have them understand why they’re doing it.’’
The team, Terwilliger said, not only trains together but plays together. That, he said, goes a long way toward shaping the mental makeup of the runners. He added that parents and the student body also play a part in any of the team’s success.
“The parents try to make it fun,’’ he said. “Like on Friday night at Randolph football games they’ll tailgate. They do things that keep the spirit up. It comes down to a group effort. It comes down to the kids working together, the student body support, the coaches being consistent and the parents getting behind them and making the season a fun event all the way through.’’
Whether or not the Raiders were able to keep their streak alive this year, Terwilliger will determine the season a success if his runners simply run hard.
“It’s the kids and the competition,’’ he said. “Just seeing a kid at the start of a summer go from someone who you initially would think has no real chance of becoming a real competitor, but then after tons of consistent work end up making our state championship team and also really contributing is what coaching is about.
“I just get so excited when I get kids that want to get better than they were yesterday.”