The school bus pulled away from the curb as it carried its cargo of Raytown High School students home from their first day of school. Cody Berry, a slight, dark-haired freshman, pressed his nose against the bus window from his seat and spied the parade of Bluejays cross country runners jogging across the school grounds as they began their afternoon training run.
"I had no idea what they were doing," remembers Cody. "I had heard of cross country, I just didn't know what it was. I thought it was a club or something to raise funds for charity."
Blue Springs State Champs, Simon Belete (L, 2012) and Stephen Mugeche (R, 2014)
Not quite what you would expect from a guy who today is the heir apparent to one of Missouri high school cross country's most respected roles, the number-one runner for the Blue Springs Wildcats. Blue Springs has supplied the state with its last two individual Class 4 state cross country champions in Simon Belete and Stephen Mugeche. After Berry's fourth-place finish at Rim Rock last month, the question being raised is could Cody Berry nail down a hat trick for the Cats in November?
It would be an upset for Berry to win the state cross country title but no more of an upset than the fact that Berry has defeated even longer odds just to be a high school student with plans for college.
"Running is pretty much all I have going for myself," Berry confessed as he discussed his difficult family life.
His father, who was never really part of his life, passed away the week before his first meet in August. His mother was incarcerated in a correctional center this summer and is serving time for multiple DUI arrests.
"All this past summer I was by myself," said Berry. "My dad wasn't there -- but still I had a father. So when he passed away it felt like I had nobody. I spent almost every day with the cross country guys this summer at practice and then hanging out with them after practice because I had nobody or any reason to look forward to going home -- besides sleeping."
We all deal with personal issues -- some more tragic than others. Berry chose to deal with his fractured family by running. But his story is far from one with a straight path to chasing a dream as big as being one of the state's elite distance runners.
"Cody shot me an email after his freshman year at Raytown to let me know he would be transferring to Blue Springs to run on the cross country team," remembers Frank Gallick, the decorated head cross country coach of the Wildcats.
"I thought, 'Hey, maybe I'll finally get something from over there.' I used to coach at Raytown and I kind of missed my days there. I knew Zach Penrod (Raytown's 2014 state runner-up in the 1600) was there but this wasn't Zach. I didn't know who this guy was."
There was good reason Berry was an unknown to Gallick and pretty much anyone else who followed the high school cross country and track scene in Kansas City.
At Raytown High his freshman year, the boys' varsity cross country team consisted of two runners. It takes seven runners to fill out a varsity squad in a sport where the top-five runners are scored. Despite those puny numbers, Berry could not crack the varsity lineup as a freshman.
"The coaches told me they didn't want me to run varsity because they didn't think I was ready physically," explained Berry. "So they put me on the JV team for almost the entire year -- even though I was running faster times than one of the two varsity runners."
As a freshman on the Raytown track team, he started as a 400-meter runner as he had in middle school but switched when it became apparent he was not going to make the varsity.
"They told me my times in the 400 would place me on the B-team," said Berry. "I thought that sucked so I asked to try running the 3200." He made the varsity track team that spring and competed in the 3200. "I ran 11:01 in my first varsity race and from then on I just loved the two-mile."
After his freshman year at Raytown, Berry talked to his mom about moving the short distance from Raytown to Blue Springs so he could attend Blue Springs High. Berry's desire to transfer to Blue Springs had little to do with the Wildcats' excellent cross country and track programs or their reputation of churning out All-State distance runners. It had more to do with following his heart.
"I wanted to go to Blue Springs all along because all of my best friends and my girlfriend went there," said Berry. His mom agreed and they moved over the summer and he enrolled at Blue Springs for his sophomore year.
"When he came over to Blue Springs and we got a look at him, he had that rooster hair sticking up on top of his head and it was kind of like, 'Well, he's okay but he's got a long way to go. He's not close to being there,'" said Gallick.
"When I got to Blue Springs I was still in that Raytown mentality and I didn't run very much," said Berry. "I didn't think I was very good and I was still young so I didn't dedicate myself to training. The first summer at Blue Springs I went to some of the summer workouts but not all of them. I was just kind of there but I wasn't pushing myself. I was just kind of going through the motions. I really didn't care if I missed practice or not."
The Blue Springs cross country program is a year-round effort, just as all quality distance programs are across the state. There are no bad-weather days when it comes to training. The calendar dictates the training not the weather. If a day has a vowel in it you likely should be outside on a training run. This concept was foreign to the new kid from Raytown.
During the winter of Berry's sophomore year he informed Gallick there was no need for him to go to morning practice. In Berry's mind it was too cold to run outdoors.
"I'm not running in the cold and snow," Berry told Gallick during their first off-season winter together.
"Listen," Gallick responded. "I don't know who you think you are but we run in the cold and in the snow here."
"Well," replied Berry. "That's the difference between smart and dumb. I'm smart and those guys running in the snow are dumb."
This was not going to be easy -- for Berry or for Gallick. But things have a way of working themselves out in athletics when good coaching meets opportunity. And Cody Berry represented an opportunity for Gallick and his talented team.
One of the first workouts Berry remembers running at Blue Springs was mile repeats. Gallick was impressed.
"Wow," Berry remembers Gallick saying. "You look like you have some heart! You run really well. You actually might be part of this team."
Knowing that he had a chance to be part of something and make the varsity team and earn a letter at Blue Springs as a sophomore was exactly what Berry needed to hear.
"I was really happy hearing Gallick say that," said Berry. "I had never had a varsity letter because Raytown never let me run varsity."
At a mid-season track meet his sophomore year, Berry clocked a 9:53 in the 3200. It was a sign to Gallick that this youngster from Raytown might prove to be more than they even knew. Gallick approached him on the track's infield and asked him if he knew what he just did in breaking ten minutes in the 3200.
"You're going to be running with the big dogs from now on," Gallick told him.
"That just changed everything," said Berry.
If you know the perils of cross country and track, you know this story just doesn't magically insert a Fairy Godmother who wishes away all of Berry's family troubles and turns him into a champion. Frustration and disappointment were waiting for him as he rounded the final curve of the 3200 at Districts his sophomore season.
William Thompson of Rockhurst, an All-State distance runner in cross country and on the track, flew past Berry down the final stretch to capture the fourth and last qualifying spot in the 3200. Berry recalls the moment like he was watching a video of it.
"That really made me mad," recalled Berry. "I didn't like that feeling and it made me want to never feel that disappointment again. I didn't miss a single day of practice that summer."
Maybe William Thompson deserves a thank you note from Coach Gallick.
Working out with the Blue Springs' cross country team brought Berry face-to-face with one of the best high-school distance runners in the Midwest in Stephen Mugeche. The leap from a two-man varsity team at Raytown to running with Mugeche was as Cody put it, "A shock to my body!"
"My junior year is when Stephen and I got really close and we started hanging out. He started pushing me along and I started running with him. I found out that I could actually keep up with him on training runs! So I started running with him. That was pretty cool."
"Stephen is such a great team player," said Gallick. "Whenever I would get on the bus, I always knew where Stephen was because all eyes were on him. Everybody was focused on him and wanted to be around him. Stephen just got along with everybody. He saw the effort that Cody was willing to put in and that's what convinced Stephen that Cody was worth mentoring. That's when he really bought into trying to help Cody and he took him under his wing. We had other guys on the team that Stephen was friends with but they never really bought in the way Cody did. Cody was willing to do the work. He would tell Stephen, 'Okay, I'm going to try and stay with you.'"
Keeping pace with Stephen Mugeche is not something many high school runners could do. Not even Berry and his I'll-show-you sized heart was up to the task as a junior.
"Cody started trying to stick with me on my easy days and he was able to run 6:25 (paced miles) with me," recalled Stephen. "But when he started staying with me on the hard work-out days, I knew this guy was different. I went to Gallick and told him, 'This guy is good!'"
"Cody never got discouraged and Stephen never gave me the indication that he was bothered by this guy trying to run next to him," said Gallick. "They ran together and they loved it! I really think Stephen kind of brought Cody along and let him know that this is the kind of work it takes. One thing about Stephen, he never backed down from the work. I think Cody realized that and it changed how he viewed his training."
"It took Cody awhile to understand the work that was necessary but he looked up to me the same way I looked up to Simon when I was the young guy," said Stephen. "He tried to rise to my level just like I tried to be as great as Simon. I think it shows this year how much work he's put in."
After Berry trained hard all winter following his junior season of cross country, he ran a 9:28 in the 3200 last spring. Gallick was the first person to remind him of the work he put in over the winter.
"So, I guess that winter training didn't matter, huh?" asked Gallick.
"Gallick has not forgotten I said, 'The difference between smart and dumb' comment and he still holds it against me now," laughs Berry.
Berry sees the state cross country race in Jefferson City this November as a chance at redemption. After a great junior season of cross country that had him ranked near the top-ten in the state going into the race, he was dealt his most crushing racing defeat.
"I got sick the week of state last year and instead of finishing in the top 10 where I thought I would, I finished 42nd," remembers Berry. "It was awful."
Strange things happen in Jeff City every November and Berry now understands that nothing is guaranteed.
"As soon as I finished the race I didn't want to talk to anybody. Somebody told me Stephen had won and so I went over and gave him a big hug and then I told him I was sorry and I started crying because I let down the team. I was really disappointed in myself. No matter how hard I tried, my body just wouldn't go."
"I don't think people understand how one moment you can have all of the joy and all of the excitement for one kid like Stephen after he won and was the state champion and then you walk over to another kid and he's crying on your shoulder because he went from expecting a top 15 place to finishing 42nd," said Gallick.
"It's crushing," said Gallick. "But I just told Cody to remember this moment and come back from this moment -- and he did."
Cody did get his All-State medal at the state track meet in May when he and his Blue Springs' 4x800 team finished sixth.
"Seeing him up on that podium smiling was so cool," recalls Gallick. "It was the greatest thing because here was a kid who was crying on my shoulder in November but he's smiling as big as can be in May."Berry followed up his 4x800 All-State medal with a fifth-place finish in the 3200 at state to give him his first individual All-State medal. He now has his sights set on standing atop the cross country All-State podium next month.
"I love pressure," said Berry. "I love carrying the team on my back. I feel like I'm important and that the team looks up to me. I do my best to motivate them and try and do what Stephen did for me. I want them to believe that everything is possible and to never give up."
Stephen's talented younger brother, Victor Mugeche, is now a sophomore and he and Berry have become inseparable friends -- not unlike the relationship Berry shared with Stephen, who now runs for the University of Arkansas.
"Victor and I hang out every day," said Berry. "We meet and talk about running every day. We motivate each other and we talk about our goals for the next meet coming up. He's kind of my best friend and little brother all at the same time."
"That friendship he's got with Victor is second to none," said Gallick. "They've done some great runs together in the summer. They've been committed throughout the offseason and they've done a great job of feeding off each other. Now when they run in the races, one does look for the other and it's great to have."
Gallick recalls a 5K road race last summer where Cody and Victor ran together and he recalls thinking, "I have seen this picture before and I was like deja-vu -- Stephen and Simon (Belete)! I have seen this number before, I love this picture! I could watch this all day long! I was as excited as could be because that is what we were going to need this season."
"It is a neat thing when you finally see it click with a kid," said Gallick. "When the lightbulb goes off and they understand. That's when I get out of the way and just point and just let them go. It's been a pleasure."
"Gallick is always pushing us along," said Berry. "He says, 'If you don't like where you are, change it. If you want to be somebody you have to earn it. It's not going to just happen.'"
"There are times when Cody looks like he's putting out a lot of effort and Victor might look like he's just cruising along. I've seen all kinds of runners and I don't worry much about form. It's results. I told Cody, 'You do what you need to do.' Cody has found his style, Victor has found his, Stephen has his...just go do what you're doing."
"Once Cody had some success, that mental toughness of his made all the difference for him," said Gallick. "Physically, he's just stronger than most kids. He's got that body build more of a wrestler type that he's trimmed down into the frame of a runner now."
When asked how he managed to escape a life in a detention center or worse, Berry reflects on his success with the eyes of a much older soul.
"I learned from everybody else's mistakes," said Berry. "My brother would get in fights with other people just for the fun of it. My family all liked smoking. My brother has a real problem with gambling. My mom has a drinking problem and that's why she's in a correctional center. To see what they went through…I just learned from it. I always told myself I was never going to end up that way. Just because someone else in my family is that way doesn't mean I'm going to be that way. I always promised myself I would never get into drinking, smoking, or gambling. I told myself I would never fall into that trap. I never want to jeopardize my life and my future family."
The state course at Oak Hills Golf Course in Jefferson City is a hilly beast. Strong young men have succumbed to those narrow passages and the dreaded Firehouse Hill. Berry is on the casualty list with his 42nd placement last year. How does he plan to defeat those hills as a senior?
"I try to use everything in my life as motivation," said Berry. "I like hilly courses better than easy courses because I know I'm a tough kid and I've worked hard enough that I'm not going to give up on a hill. I'm going to push all the way to the top and compete as hard as I can. I know people tend to give up on hills and since I've been on my own most of my life, it's easier for me to keep pushing forward."
"Cody still kids me about me hoping that email from Raytown would have been from Zach," laughs Gallick. "Two years ago I would have never dreamt that Cody would be in the position he's in."
But can Berry follow the path of Belete and Mugeche and add another individual cross country state championship atop Blue Springs' glossy mantel -- or even beat Stephen's brother Victor who may have his own goals for a state championship as a sophomore?
"I don't want to put a lot of pressure on him for where he can finish at state," said Gallick. "But I don't want to put a limit on him either. Whether he's chasing (Kearney's) Clayton Adams or if (Lafayette's) Austin Hindman is right there in front of you -- go get 'em. Why not?"
"Maybe I can run with Clayton at state and he won't just leave me behind. Maybe I can be top five at state. Lafayette's team might have something to say about that but I want to try and break up Lafayette and maybe beat their third or fourth guy. That's my goal."
"I want to be somebody," added Berry.
By Greg Hall @greghall24 firstname.lastname@example.org