By Laura Colvin
Kuna Melba News editor
The Kuna boys varsity cross country team is off and running toward a 4A district championship.
That, anyway, is the goal of first year head coach Chuck Tookey, who’s also aiming to have his runners on the platform at the state championship meet, which takes place Oct. 27 at Lewiston.
He’s well on the way.
So far, the boys are undefeated in conference competition, and Tookey’s top two runners—senior Michael Cunningham and senior Andrew Burgess—are currently ranked second and third in 4A District III, with season-best times of 16:44.07 and 16:44.80, respectively, followed by junior Brock Thompson in the no. 8 spot and sophomore Caleb Day at no. 9 in the district.
Middleton’s Austin Fred leads the district pack at 16:25.4, but his teammates are farther down the list.
Columbia is the only other school with more than one athlete currently ranked in the top ten, and has runners in the no. 5 and no. 10 spot.
Cunningham and Burgess are in the 4A top ten statewide, as well, ranking at the no. 5 and 6 spots, with Thompson at 21 and Day at 23.
“They’re all very dedicated,” said Tookey. “Most of them ran with me all summer long; you can’t be good at cross country if you only run during the season.”
It’s been rewarding, he said, to see the boys not only improve on times, but to grow as a team—or an extended family.
“They’re really close,” he said. “More like brothers. They hold one another up, hold one another accountable and help one another run faster. It’s really been fun to watch them.”
Tookey, who got involved with the team as a parent volunteer coach when his daughter, junior Kaitlin Tookey, went out for cross country in her freshman year, also coaches Kuna’s girls cross country team. The girls, he noted, are struggling a bit this year.
“We’ve got a lot of injuries,” he said, adding that the team lost its four top runners when two seniors graduated last spring, and two others—sisters Sierra and Anysja Manzer—moved to Melba and are now running in 2A District III for the Mustangs.
“My top runner for the girls right now is my daughter,” Tookey said. “That’s been a pleasant surprise; she was number seven last year. Madie Cook is also running really well, and so is our freshman Abby Dotson. I’m looking forward to having her on the team for a few years.”
Abi Cardenas is currently the team’s no. 4 runner, with Kassi Jensen—also a Kuna girls varsity soccer starter—in the no. 5 position. Jensen has held anywhere from first to fifth all season thus far, Tookey said.
Bradee Purbeck and Megan Danell are sixth and seventh, respectively, although the girls change positions on the list nearly every week.
Boys or girls, the philosophy is about the same.
“I believe in more miles and lower intensity,” said Tookey. “We’ve been on quite a few long runs, and I’ve had them doing a lot of hill work. We also do a lot of barefoot running on the grass at school.”
Barefoot running, he noted, helps strengthen feet and forces athletes to use proper form.
Tookey said his own passion for running—he ran in both high school and college—is part of what fuels his drive to coach, but he also likes to hold himself up as an example to the kids.
“You don’t have to stop when you get out of school,” he said. “I’ve been doing this 28 years and I still race, too.”
The team he said, has invigorated his own practice.
“Running with the kids, being there to coach them and watch them grow—it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in a long time.”
And a trophy might make it more rewarding yet.
“I’m looking for a district championship with my boys,” he said. “I’ve got to keep them healthy, that’s the main thing. They all run fast enough—if they can match their season best times, we’ve got a pretty good shot at winning it.”
“Pocatello’s got a really good team this year,” he said, noting Preston and Rigby will also be tough competitors.
Whatever the outcome, one thing’s for sure.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this without Steve’s help,” he said, nodding toward Steve Kilgore, who is Kuna’s head track and field coach and also works as an assistant coach with the cross country runners. “We work great together; he’s a calming influence and he’s done this for a long time—his experience makes a big difference.”
Kilgore has opinions of his own.
“Chuck..is doing a great job,” said Kilgore. “His coaching philosophy is designing and building a state championship team.”