The Clinton cross country team ended their season last week in Bettendorf at districts, which comes with it a sad goodbye to the seniors.

“I was really ready to keep running, but it ended really quick,” senior Aidan Smith said. “It’s been a good season.”

This group was particularly special to head coach Kellen Schneeberger. It’s the first group Schneeberger has had on his roster from the time they were freshman to the point where they graduated.

“They mean the world to us,” Schneeberger said. “They were there when I took over and I didn’t know what to expect. They started out these squirrely little kids and we got to see them grow.”

That means they’ve helped with Schneeberger’s change of culture in the program. And it’s starting to show.

The high school cross country team had over 50 kids in the program this year, while the middle school program is sitting over 40. When the seniors began it was just over a dozen participating.

“They’ve set the tone,” Schneeberger said. “When I took the program over I had a vision and philosophy I wanted to instill and they’ve done everything I’ve asked of them.”

None of them were quite sure running was for them. Selena Tello went out because she didn’t want to do volleyball, while Aidan Smith’s mom said he needed to do a sport. Kyle Gassman saw a family member do it and wanted to give it a try while Kaylie DeSwardt thought it would be fun to join some of her friends on the course.

Even though they were new to the sport, they had support from the brand new coaching staff four years ago.

“Going in freshman year with Schnee being our coach was amazing,” Gassman said. “I think we all fell in love with him being our coach and we’ve grown since then around him like we were his little babies.”

“I think the biggest thing starting off, everyone was already good,” DeSwardt said. “He didn’t make it feel that way at all. He welcomes everyone and makes it an amazing environment for people who weren’t doing it for years and years.”

Then they started realizing how much they not only enjoyed the sport, but really enjoyed the environment that it offered.

“I think one thing is that we’re a team, but we’re a family first,” Riley Nickels said. “The atmosphere is competitive, but we’re always pushing each other to go further. That family atmosphere has helped people gravitate towards us.”

They helped foster that as they got older. Team dinners continued to be an important aspect of the team. They continued on traditions set by classes before them and even start some of their own, like Kyle Gassman’s trident he built for the boys’ team.

“I think the bonding and team dinners that we do has helped make it a family,” Gassman said. “Plus we’re with each other for something like 22 weeks. We see each other every day for the most part and we really bond from there.”

You can see the morale that it’s built. The Clinton cross kids are always having fun – always in good spirits and making running look like it could be fun.

That’s one of the goals the seniors had, though.

“Running is really hard, and it’s great when people are high-fiving you at the end of races,” Smith said. “Our team really worked on that a lot, just pumping people up and having fun.”

This year they had something else on their mind. They started really competing.

No longer was the Clinton team continuously at the bottom of the scorecard. Instead, they were right in the thick of the field.

That’s something else the senior class has tried to foster.

“This season he really pushed a heavy mindset to competition,” Riley Nickels said. “This season, we really pushed being competitive. He wanted to give us confidence in ourselves that we can compete with North Scott and Bettendorf, and that’s been a big difference maker.”

“We’ve been upping the mileage that we run,” Noah Smith said. “At the beginning he was just introducing us to the sport and intensity. Now we’ve really stepped up the mileage and intensity and really working towards achieving our goals.”

Even in the competing aspect the team mentality has been important.

“I think the biggest thing is we run as a team, even in meets,” Kaylie DeSwardt said. “Getting our spread closer together is a big thing we’re focusing on. We run for each other. Even when someone is having a hard day, someone else steps up and we push ourselves as a group and the times fall into place.”

The team is full of kids taking AP classes and kids who do extra curricular activities outside of sports. They’re fun-loving and as they say, inclusive.

“We’re all shapes and sizes,” Noah Smith said. “We have bigger kids running and scrawny kids running, we have everyone.”

“Clinton cross country kids are the select few that are good kids, do well in class, and are fun to be with,” Kyle Gassman said. “There’s not one cross country kid that we don’t want to hang out with. Plus, we’re open minded.”

“Cross country in general, it’s a strong and powerful environment,” Aidan Smith said.

It’s an environment the seniors have worked hard to foster, along with Schneeberger and his staff. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a group like that?

“Since we’re seniors, we’re thinking about colleges,” Riley Nickels said. “All colleges have a different acceptance rate. We may be 50 kids out of the entire high school but we have a 100 percent acceptance rate, because anyone can come run with us. Come one, come all, join our family.”

It certainly will be a sad goodbye at the end-of-the-year banquet when the seniors step away, but they’ve made their mark. Like Schneeberger told them on the way to districts last week, the work they put in will impact the program for years to come.

“I think the biggest thing was seeing how much more competitive they were and how they enjoyed running,” Schneeberger said. “They’re just great people ... I couldn’t be more happy for them. And they’ve rubbed on the program as best they could.”