It had to be the socks.
As 8-year-old Alayna Justice approached the finish line, she was wearing black knee-high socks with images of Baby Yoda on them.
Apparently, the force was with her because she was quite a distance ahead of the rest of the second and third grade girls in the final EXCL race of the season Sept. 24 on the cross-country course at the Freeman Field Recreational Complex on the south side of Seymour.
The Crothersville Elementary School second-grader earned her second first-place ribbon of the season, which only consists of three meets in September. She completed the 2K (1.24 miles) course in 9 minutes, 35 seconds. The runner-up finished in 10:08.
Justice lets her running speak for her because she’s a young lady of few words. It’s only her second year of participating in the league, and she chose to get involved because her older sister did it.
She said she likes hanging out with her friends and practicing with them, and winning for the second time made her happy.
While she’s only in elementary school, Justice is running in middle school cross-country meets this fall, and she also plays volleyball and does competitive cheerleading.
When asked if she wants to keep running for EXCL, she smiled and said, “Yeah.”
EXCL Director Brad Cobb said Saturday’s race ended the seventh season of the league, which most years has been for first- through fifth-graders. The first year also included kindergartners.
That year drew more than 500 kids. The league was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but returned in 2021 with 312 runners, and it grew to 389 this year with 12 Jackson County schools participating.
Each May, Cobb reaches out to the schools to see if they want to participate in the upcoming season and if the coaches will be the same.
“To me, they need to be doing it because it’s a feeder program,” he said. “We’ve got Crothersville. We’ve got the Brownstown schools. We’ve got the Seymour schools. That’s what we are, and middle school coaches know that this is our feeder program, so I really don’t have to do much with that.”
A lot of the team coaches are repeat coaches.
“We have a little bit of turnover because it’s completely 100% voluntary. The coaches, they don’t get paid. This is all just volunteer,” Cobb said.
He’s glad to see the county schools join the league because it’s another offering for students.
“We see the kids who are not football kids or they are not soccer kids,” Cobb said. “Most of them can run or even if they aren’t in shape, they come out and run for the six weeks that we do it and it improves them, it helps them, gets them more active, so that’s a good thing. I do see a lot of response as far as from parents who tell me ‘My kid has never had anything before, and he’s good at this. We love that.’”
The league races are divided by gender in three divisions: First grade, second and third grades and fourth and fifth grades. First grade runs 1K (0.62 miles), and the other grades run 2K.
The top 25 in each race receive a numbered ribbon, and others receive a finisher’s ribbon.
Whether they finish first or last, people cheer for the runners because they are taking the initiative to be involved.
“We’re a cross-country family,” Cobb said. “The parents will cheer for any kid. (The runners) have got their colored shirts so we know (what school they are from), but you’ll see Redding parents cheering for a Crothersville kid. That’s just cross-country.”
Margaret R. Brown Elementary School third-graders Cami Russell, Jillian Russell, Angelica Aguilar and Evan Weddle all participated in EXCL for the first time this year.
“I love running,” Cami said of why she joined. “It’s really fun, and I like it. It’s super cool. It’s just healthy for you and just keeps me going.”
Her twin sister said she likes competing. She has learned to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth while running.
“It gives you a lot of energy,” Jillian said of running.
Aguilar said she signed up for EXCL because it’s a good challenge.
“I wanted to get faster at running, and I’m thinking I’m going to join next year,” she said. “I actually like doing challenges and all that. It encourages your running, and it helps you stay positive that you can do anything you want.”
Weddle said he likes earning ribbons and feels good after a good run.
“I think it’s just healthy for your body, and your body has to get used to it,” he said.
Cobb said he continues to lead the league because he likes seeing kids improve each year.
“I like seeing this kid who is a little first-grader, they’ll run all through EXCL, they’ll join middle school cross, they’ll be in high school cross,” he said. “I’ve got some of them sitting right here, and I’ve been seeing their parents posting on Facebook their elementary school pictures from EXCL.”
Just recently, he said AnnMarie Shuler’s mom posted pictures of AnnMarie and Kelly Beavers running with EXCL and Seymour High School.
“Those two were running together in EXCL for different teams, but now, they are on the same team in high school,” Cobb said. “So for me, I love seeing them grow and be a part of cross-country all the way through it.”