PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Invoking a no-nonsense attitude, coach Dale Pine has refused to allow his athletes to fall victim to the obstacles that present daily challenges in Pine Ridge. That's why he believes cross country running is the ideal sport at his South Dakota high school.
"You can't complain to the coach about getting the ball," the 20-year teacher for the Pine Ridge Thorpes said, who also shares the coaching duties with his wife Lyn. "Every time you line up, it's man-versus-man and you can never make an excuse."
Such a philosophy is one of the driving forces behind why Pine Ridge has become so dominant. On Oct. 25, for the sixth time in nine years the boys' squad repeated as South Dakota champions in the "A" division (those schools below the top-16 in enrollment size). For added measure, the school added its inaugural combined title when the girls' squad placed in sixth.
Anchoring the team is junior Patrick Glass who won the individual race for the third time in four years himself clocking 16:15.62 over the 5,000-meter (3.1-mile) track at the Broadland golf course in Huron. This time was good for a 4.67-second victory and would have placed him second among all runners in South Dakota's three categories.
With a slender body frame of 135 pounds, Glass possesses the ideal size for a long-distance runner. His continued success has already attracted the attention of numerous colleges and universities towards a post-secondary athletic scholarship.
Now a seasoned veteran, he recognizes it can easily be him who sets the pace in any race.
"I go out first and stay out there. Then at the end I can slow down and then take off," said the 11th grade student.
Even with Glass's solo victory, the Thorpes needed three other runners to post results for a team score. With freshman Alex Wilson-Pine crossing the line in fourth, 12 seconds back, and senior Zuya White Plume in 11th along with Nupa White Plume, 32nd, their placements were just enough to total one point lower than the foursome from Miller High School.
What surprised Pine Ridge was the finish by its girls' team. The sixth-place was paced by freshman Robin Webber who wound up second out of 130 runners with a mark of 16:36.15, two seconds behind the winner in the 4,000-meter (2.5-mile) race. This success wasn't anticipated at the start of the season when Webber decided to run only as a means to prepare for the volleyball and basketball seasons.
"When you see a guy like Patrick do so well, it inspires others to do well," Webber said.
Coach Pine showed satisfaction in the next prodigy within the Thorpes' tradition of cross-country excellence.
"She didn't have to go out and compete because she's only a freshman. She could have jogged it and finished 20th," said Pine.
Besides preparing their athletes with proper running skills, the Pines maintain a team philosophy in really what is an individual sport.
Practicing, at times, every day of the week with numerous routes tucked among the Black Hills of the southwestern part of the state, the boys and girls teams also hang out together in town at the mall.
The dedication and devotion displayed by the Pines is not to satiate their own need for success as Dale said this team is for the kids. Rather, both he and his wife need to press their athletes to remain focused on the task of running and staying in school.
They cite some of the problems that plague the reservation such as alcoholism and high unemployment which can drag youth into a cycle of hopelessness if there isn't something positive they can grasp. To prevent some of the kids from falling into any trap of despair, the two will maintain team unity by driving the students home from practice and in some circumstances, drag kids out of bed to ensure they're attending school.
"I don't care about the winning. What they learn in the end is hard work and discipline," Dale said about why he and Lyn will take unusual and extra steps for their students.
Such hard work also has its rewards. The Thorpes attended the 11-state Midwest meet in Kenosha, Wis. on Nov. 29. For Glass, this race was the first time he competed in the Seeded category after finishing eighth last year in the freshman/sophomore division. Glass and teammates Zuya and Nupa White Plume proudly represented their school at the 11-state meet.
"Guys out of here can run as good as anybody else but they just need exposure," Pine added.