WEST VANCOUVER — It was on the final Friday of last month, a day of professional development for teachers across the province of B.C., and Mark Fenn sat transfixed as he took in the words being spoken at a seminar he happened to be attending in Langley.
“I was at Trinity Western’s Leadership Super-Conference and one of the sessions I was in explored teams and what makes them great,” began Fenn, a co-coach and architect of the girls high school cross-country running dynasty at West Vancouver’s Sentinel Secondary.
“They were talking about legacy teams, the kind a coach might get once or twice over the course of their career,” Fenn continued. “One of the (traits) that was being talked about with those kinds of teams is that those kids almost always become friends for life. When I heard that, all I could think about was our girls.”
Those girls, or more specifically the 2019 edition of Sentinel Spartans cross-country team, made one of the most indelible marks in the history of B.C. high school sports, repeating as team champs at last Saturday’s provincial final meet with a record-setting team score which already seems to stand as all but untouchable.
At the B.C. meet, held in Abbotsford, the Spartans turned in a performance, which from a team perspective, was so dominant that its winning total of 14 points almost seemed like a case of bad math.
For the uninitiated, low score win the day in cross-country running.
The B.C. meet combines the placings of any team’s top four runners, and in the case of Sentinel, their dominance was impossible to miss.
When placed against the entire 221-runner field in the girls event, the Spartans’ four scoring runners all finished in the top 12, and that included a fourth-place finish by senior Emmajean Neal, a fifth by Grade 9 Sidney Clement, an 11th by senior Ehren Paterson and a 12th by Grade 10 Sofia Day.
The race’s top three overall finishers — Madelyn Bonikowsky of Nelson’s L.V. Rogers, Kendra Lewis of Van Tech and Katelyn Stewart-Barnett of Burnaby’s St. Thomas More — did not run as part of teams and thus from a team-scoring perspective, Neal and Clement scored first and second, Paterson fifth and Day sixth.
To bring their accomplishment even more into focus, consider that with 221 runners in the race, Sentinel’s girls scored a 14 when a perfect score would have been 10.
Also running for the Spartans were Jade Clement (18th), Cameron Hill (23rd), Gabrielle Borgault-Kennaley (80th) and Tabea Genhen (162nd).
Nanaimo’s John Barsby Bulldogs won the boys team title with 79 points, eight more than second-place L.V. Rogers. Jaiveer Tiwana of Surrey’s Fleetwood Park Dragons won the boys race.
“When I ran cross-country in high school (with West Vancouver in 1999) we won the provincial title with 114 points,” continued Fenn, of a number that seems gaudy even when compared to the 27 points the Sentinel girls scored last season en route to the B.C. title.
“Many teams win in the 60-to-70 points-scored range,” added Fenn, who co-coaches the team with Hugh Wilson, “so when we went to (Abbotsford’s) MEI gym for the awards presentation after the race, you could hear the ‘ohhh’s’ from the 1,000 or so people there when they announced that we won with 14 points. It didn’t sound right. It’s something that you might not see again.”
Ask Fenn what he and Wilson are most proud of and the answer is simple.
“As a physical educator, I love the fact they that are all multi-sport athletes, not just cross-country runners,” he says.
The sporting resumes of his team members is broad-based, touching on a complete cross-training lifestyle.
*Sidney Clement: Swimming, triathlon, soccer, track, XC.
*Emmajean Neal: Swimming, triathlon, basketball, track, XC.
*Ehren Paterson: Rowing, volleyball, track, XC.
*Sofia Day: Volleyball, track, XC.
*Jade Clement: Triathlon, basketball, track, XC.
*Cameron Hill: Swimming, triathlon track, XC.
*Gabrielle Bourgault-Kennaley: Triathlon, track, XC.
*Tabea Gehnen: Soccer, track, XC.
It’s pretty plain to see that, while practices are specific and purposeful, Fenn and Wilson put just as much importance on a form of mental well-being that is best described as team spirit.
“Most of the girls are also competing at a high level in other sports, so the one thing we’ve tried to do at Sentinel is make sure this is a positive training environment,” says Fenn.
“We have big numbers, big teams, so we try to make it fun, and that can mean having a not-so-demanding practice, movie nights, pizza Fridays. You have to make it fun, and it pays off.”
Which brings us back to that professional development seminar Fenn attended last month, the one that had him relishing the fact that organically, the program was helping his student-athletes form bonds that would stand the test of time.
As you look at the photographs taken for this story from Saturday’s B.C. championship race by Jon Hayduk, in every instance you see Sentinel runners hitting their stride in pink shorts.
“We entered the Nike Hole in the Wall this year,” Fenn recalls of the blue-chip race held at Lakewood High just north of Everett. Wash. “We stopped off at an outlet store before that race and we argued about what colour shorts to buy. We bought pink, we had a good race, and we’ve worn them at every race since.”
Fenn and Wilson know that the shorts actually stand for a lot more.
“You might get a team like this once or twice in your entire coaching career,” Fenn concludes. “There is just something different here. These girls are just beyond their years in terms of their preparation, grit, focus and sportsmanship. We really can see these girls being best friends for the rest of their lives.”
Especially after what happened last Saturday in the park.
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