Arch support — Lakewood community rallies around Cougar cross country

The Lakewood High School boys cross country team poses on the podium at the state meet after taking fourth place. - Courtesy photo
The Lakewood High School boys cross country team poses on the podium at the state meet after taking fourth place.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

LAKEWOOD — When asked to name a few people who’ve helped his program get where it is, Lakewood coach Jeff Sowards’ eyes glaze over.

This is a daunting task.

Sowards consults his cell phone, flipping through and giving name after name and contact info.

“It is important to us to help young men and women develop into men and women of character,” Sowards said.

And he has a whole rolodex full of characters.

From parents, runners and fans, it’s not unusual to come to a Lakewood High School track at any time of the year and see the likes of Cougar cross country runners of past and present training.

In fact, sometimes there can be as many as 30 runners out there in the summer looking to learn how to race from the wealth of cross country knowledge that comes from sending 26 boys teams to state meets and a state championship in 1989.

Co-head coaches Sowards and Jon Murray created an atmosphere that has spanned two generations and brought together a community.

“You don’t see many athletic directors come to a cross country meet and help pass out fliers, but they do here,” Sowards said. It’s a tradition of winning, and treating athletes as people first, that brings them back to Lakewood.

And it’s passed on from previous runners like 2005 graduate Cullen Cantwell, who now runs for Great Falls College in Montana.

“It’s an honor for me just to be able to talk about the program,” Cantwell said. “I love meeting all the freshmen and training there.”

Cantwell started running cross country in his junior year to get in better shape for baseball, but he appreciated the atmosphere so much that he declined his senior year of baseball to run for the track team, also coached by Sowards and Murray.

“I gave up my senior year of baseball and maybe winning a state title to be around them,” he said.

Lakewood shows off its community at two host meets every season: the Hole In The Wall Invite and the Conference Championship. Music is requested and played over the loud speakers while runners kick their way around the stadium. Hundreds of people gather to watch dozens of schools compete and meet the devoted people that Cougar runners are lucky enough to enjoy every day.

That feeling is common when talking about a program that has seen roughly 60 athletes go on to run in college, 16 of them at the Division I level and nine currently running after high school.

“It was a big deal for me to come out here and see all of those guys that already graduated come back and I thought, ‘Wow! I want to be like them,’” said Murray, who ran for Lakewood and graduated in 1995. “We don’t really talk about (the tradition). Freshmen come in knowing what we’re all about, and if they don’t, they find out pretty quick.”

Murray attributes the program’s success to having a couple of seniors every year that exhibit leadership qualities, and buy into a feeling of togetherness.

“And that has been even closer after the past couple of years,” he said. “We suffered three car crashes in just a few years that really brought everybody together.”

One of them, a 2006 accident that killed potential state-title contender Scott Skiles, still hit home this season, as 2009 was his brother, Chad’s, senior year. But out of tragedy came a closeness to an already tight-knit group. A group that placed fourth at state — and had fun doing it.

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