Crossing the Finish Line
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There is only one fantasy sport in the world where competitors can meet and compete with their players in real life. Of that fantasy sport, there is only one confirmed league in existence in the entire world.
Ten years ago, Clayton head cross country coach James Crowe had an idea.
“There were all this fantasy football and fantasy baseball, and I didn’t really want any of that. I thought cross country lends itself to a tremendous opportunity for fantasy, and I told one of my assistants at the time, David Hackett. We sat down, hammered out some rules, and the first year, we had four people playing, and we had a lot of fun,” Crowe said.
The rules Crowe and Hackett created were simple: Each competitor drafts 10 runners and picks a starting lineup of seven. The results of all meets are merged into one super-meet in which all runners are ranked by that week’s 5k times. That super-meet is then scored as if it is a normal cross country meet, where the top time gets one point, second gets two and so on. The lowest team score wins the week and is awarded 10 fantasy points, second place team is awarded eight fantasy points, and each successive team receives one fantasy point fewer. Fantasy points are accumulated over the course of the year and the top four after the regular season qualify for the state championships. The winner for the regular season and state championships both receive a Woofie’s hot dog.
“Hackett and I both really enjoyed a Woofie’s hot dog. They’re amazing, delicious, and that’s kind of a nice prize, and we can’t really gamble with actual money, so that’s how we decided,” Crowe said.
John Spencer, a Cross Country Coach at Westminster Christian Academy, appreciates what Crowe has created.
“There’s no better fantasy sport out there,” he said. “Fantasy football takes no effort. Fantasy cross country is a thing for the intellectual. Fantasy football is something for anybody.”
This past year, Spencer’s team failed to make it to state, ending the season in last place. Spencer blames his team’s failure on his lack of time, arguing, “I could’ve won if I’d done something. I had a few other things going on this year.”
“Things” refers to Spencer’s newborn baby, a commitment the other coaches in the league respect, though they may not understand.
“Spencer’s performance was disappointing,” Crowe said. “Some people place more of a value on their family than they do on fantasy. I don’t understand it, but who am I to say?”
Through the years, fantasy cross country’s practice of high schoolers drafting other high schoolers for their teams has led to some interesting scenarios. Mark Spewak, former Ladue runner and current coach, leaped at the opportunity to draft himself his senior year.
“In the summer of 2010, I had a lot of confidence in myself as a runner. I really believed I was going to be a state contender going into my senior cross country season. I believe it was the 3rd or 4th round when I decided I was going to pick myself. Boy did that backfire,” Spewak said.
For Spewak, keeping his fantasy team competitive was a top priority, even if it meant cutting ties with himself.
“My season got off to a very slow start. For whatever reason I still thought I was going to continue to get faster. It became clear that my sub par performances each week were slowing my fantasy team down. I decided to drop myself and pick up a free agent from Farmington High School,” Spewak said.
Although Spewak ended up helping his Ladue team to the Class 3 state title, the victory was a bittersweet experience.
“The funny thing was after I dropped myself, I started dropping huge personal records. A fellow member of the league ended up picking me up and using me to beat me at State. It was one of the toughest losses I have endured to this day,” Spewak said.
Another fantasy team this year was co-coached by CHS sophomores Andrew Wang and Andrew Withrow. Withrow was attracted to the simplicity of the fantasy sport.
“You just look at the times, and whoever ran the fastest time wins. It makes it really straightforward,” he said.
The Wang-Withrow team had the advantage of the first draft pick, allowing them to employ their unusual strategy: “We drafted the dudes with cool names, like Victor Mugeche,” Wang said.
The Wang-Withrow team performed extremely well for most of the season, winning the regular season and securing a spot at the state championships. Wang had the opportunity to run at the state championships himself, allowing him to talk to some of his runners including Mugeche.
“Meeting Mugeche was very exhilarating because he possesses great powers and he will be famous one day,” Wang said. Mugeche also seemed happy to meet his fantasy coach.
“I think we have substantial evidence that he was quite excited to see me,” Wang said. “It was a very humbling experience for him because he realized that people besides his fellow runners care about what he does.”
To his disappointment, Withrow was unable to attend the state championships.
“I would’ve liked to talk to my runners about how they approach running and why they like running,” he said.
Nevertheless, being a fantasy coach has inspired Withrow in his own running career.
“It has definitely shown me the skill some runners have and it has motivated me to run harder myself,” he said.
Although CHS senior Hugo Hoffman had never heard of fantasy cross country, he had no hesitations joining the league.
“I decided to do it because I enjoy looking at cross country statistics and making predictions for runner’s future performances,” he said. “Those are the main skills for being a good fantasy coach.”
Hoffman knew he would be competing against experienced fantasy coaches and devised his strategy accordingly.
“We figured other coaches would be choosing runners based on whoever had the best performance last year, but we added another factor into our drafting of our runners,” Hoffman said. “We gave a greater weight to good performances done by young runners because young runners tend to improve more the next year they run.”
As a result, Hoffman’s team consisted of mostly underclassmen, with absolutely no seniors. For the most part, Hoffman’s strategy paid off, securing his team second place at the state competition.
Hoffman was proud of his fantasy team and extremely appreciative of his runners.
“At the end of the year, I had a lot of gratitude towards our runners because they helped us secure a spot in the state fantasy meet,” he said. “I thought that as a gesture of appreciation I’d make each of our runners a personalized awards certificate.”
In the past Hoffman has participated on CHS’s own cross country team, but this year, he found himself prioritizing fantasy cross country over all other commitments.
“Looking at all these impressive performances encouraged me to get into shape, but it just conflicted too much with my coaching schedule,” he said.
Now that the fantasy cross country season has come to a close, Hoffman hopes to use the encouragement and inspiration he got from fantasy to other areas of his life.
“There’s a lot less stress in my life now. A lot less late nights,” he said. “Now I have time to do other things after school like running and homework.”
Despite some disappointments, Hoffman views this past fantasy season as a positive experience.
“I’m inspired by my runners and I hope that they’re inspired by our fantasy team and what it means to be on it,” he said.
For many runners, being a part of someone’s fantasy team can provide the extra motivation they need for success. The night before the 2016 MSHSAA Cross Country State Championships, Whitfield senior Simon Gelber learned that fantasy coach Spewak had drafted him early in the season and was now depending upon his state performance.
“It’s awesome. It makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something,” Gelber said. “I will run faster. I have to now.” Less than 24 hours later, Gelber won the Class 2 State Championships with a time of 16:24.
Other runners, like Springfield Catholic junior and three-time state champion Stephen Kielhofner felt a similar sense of accomplishment and motivation as Gelber.
“It brings warmth to my heart and I’m glad to know that I’m part of someone’s fantasy cross country team,” Kielhofner said.
Although Kielhofner was drafted in the first round this past season, he was only the eighth overall draft pick. After winning the Class 3 state championship, he expressed hopes to be next season’s fantasy cross country league’s number one draft pick.
“This is actually my only objective now, this is the only thing I’m going to work towards,” Kielhofner said.
Ben Naeger, St. Genevieve senior and two-time state champion, finds the attention of being a fantasy runner to be quite rewarding.
“I guess it’s pretty cool now that people are looking at me,” he said after placing second in the Class 3 State Championships. “It’s definitely pretty cool to watch people make their predictions. Everybody’s doing it, why not make it a competition?” Naeger said.
Throughout the years, the league has grown from four competitors to twelve, and a spinoff fantasy track league has spawned in the springtime. But there is one more place Crowe sees the league going.
“As the sport progresses, I think there could be an opening for a girls fantasy league,” Crowe said.