On a beautiful day last week, I stood on a rural road in Findley Lake and watched as the Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School cross country teams ran by me in what was the early stages of a five-mile run.
When the youngsters finished, they did a series of base workouts, that included 20- and 40-yard sprints for another 20 minutes.
And, finally, when they completed that, the two dozen kids prepared to have their photograph taken.
"Get your hair done,'' yelled Maple Grove coach Robert "Doc" Rappole. "Get yourselves fixed up.''
Then, to no one in particular, he added, "They always look good."
With the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association cross country season about ready to start, it's hard to argue with that assessment. All one has to do is take a look at the state Class D preseason rankings compiled by tullyrunners.com.
The numbers tell the story.
Maple Grove's girls team, the two-time defending state champ, is No. 2.
The boys team?
It is No. 1.
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Pan Fanaritis ran cross country for Warren Area High School in the mid-1960s. His senior year - 1967 - the Dragons won the Pennsylvania state championship.
"I was No. 4 man,'' Fanaritis said. "We were good."
Among Warren's biggest rivals was Jamestown High School. Doc Rappole was the Red Raiders' top runner back then.
"My best friend was a year younger than me,'' Fanaritis said, "and he beat Doc (on Jamestown's home course). Doc swears the guy cut the course. That shows that Doc is a competitor. He swears that (the Warren runner) was behind him and when (Doc) came out of the woods (the Warren runner) was ahead of him.''
The debate is still very much alive 45 years later.
What has also endured, however, is a friendship between Rappole and Fanaritis, who retired in 2011 after 32 years in the coaching profession, including 18 as the head men's and women's track and field coach, and associate professor in sports psychology at Denison (Ohio) University.
"Four years before I retired, I'm looking at the College of Wooster's roster and I see a girl from Ellery Center, N.Y. and Maple Grove High School,'' Fanaritis said. "Then I see a name (Whitney Rappole) and I thought, 'Gee, I wonder if it's any relation?'''
Early in that season, Denison was competing against Wooster, so Fanaritis sought out Whitney to confirm who her father was.
The reconnection was made.
By the spring of 2011 - and just before his retirement - Fanaritis called Rappole to inform his high school rival that he was moving back to Warren and asked if he could help the Maple Grove kids.
So late last August, Fanaritis made his first appearance at the Red Dragons summer cross country camp, which is based at Doc and Barb Rappole's cottage on Findley Lake.
Fanaritis returned again this summer.
"It's fun,'' he said. "The first thing you hear about is it's enjoyable. You don't think work first, even though a lot of work gets accomplished. At this age range, the ultimate is when you can make people work hard, but make them think that they're having fun."
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As Fanaritis waited for the Maple Grove kids to return from their five-mile run, he talked the language of a coach and the language of a sports psychologist when describing the program that Rappole has developed over the years.
"Obviously, you want team dynamic,'' Fanaritis said. "(With this camp), everyone gets to know everyone. The fact seventh-graders are allowed to run varsity that's a big age range and it's even bigger when you consider maturity-wise from seventh-grader to 12th-grader. But (Rappole) does a great job of integrating, and the other thing he does is (develop) a program.
"The older (runners tell the younger ones), 'This is how we do things.' It's very subtle, but it self-perpetuates. You can tell when somebody is a program and you can tell when somebody is just a team."
The program is alive and very well on Dutch Hollow Road.
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Last November, the Lady Red Dragons captured their second straight state championship. Megan Marsh and Hope Pietrocarlo, both eighth-graders, finished second and third, while sophomore Caroline Benson placed fifth, sophomore Taylor Norris was 10th, junior Stephanie Krempa was 25th and sophomore Abby Sirwatka was 35th. Katelyn Benson, the lone senior, placed 12th despite being tripped.
All those girls, including junior Emma Verdonik, return. Katelyn Benson will run this year at Denison, Fanaritis' old school.
The Maple Grove boys are led by junior Corey Wefing, who placed fourth in Class D at the state meet last fall and headlines a talented group of Maple Grove boys that also includes junior Peter Cala, seniors Matt Nelson, Nick Zuroski and Colin Green and freshman Frank Zuroski, among others.
"There's a lot of expectations,'' Fanaritis said. "It can be good and it can be bad. It's how you respond to it, but the talent's certainly there."