When Indiana high school cross country coaches look at their state poll, they've started seeing a team they're not used to in their ranks. Even those who might recognize a team called HSU might not understand why they aren't more familiar: they don't actually hail from an Indiana school at all.
That's because Home School Union is a program designed to let homeschooled students compete in varsity cross country, with runners from across Southern Indiana competing for the team. After starting the program in 1999, HSU coach Jon Sweetland has watched his stable of runners grow, both in number and age. Finally, for the first time in state history, coaches were so impressed this year that his girls' cross country team was selected for a spot in the indianrunner.com Indiana High School Athletic Association girls' cross country poll, even though Home School Union isn't technically an IHSAA school (and therefore shouldn't qualify for the poll).
"We've been around since 1999 and there have been many years we haven't had that success," Sweetland told Prep Rally. "The objective of the sport is to win the race, or score more points (or less in our case). But the purpose for us is to glorify God, and I try to challenge the kids with that. And we get the kids to remember that when we receive honors. This year we were ranked with other IHSAA schools in their state rankings, and I asked them 'what does this mean'. They said 'Well, coach I guess this means we're pretty good.'"
The 2010 Tommies -- the team name comes from Africa's Thompson's Gazelle -- are pretty good. Running a schedule that includes meets against some of the state's best teams, the HSU girls roster won the Eagle Pre-State Classic and finished second in a handful of other events, including the Providence Invitational last week.
The strong results would put the Tommies in good stead heading into the IHSAA state tournament series ... if they were allowed to compete. Yet, because the team doesn't hail from a recognized state school, HSU is forced to focus on 12-13 regular season meets against other Indiana schools.
The modified schedule alone was a creative compromise fostered in large part by IHSAA commissioner Blake Russ, who went out of his way to work with the program when it first began looking for high school competition in 2005.
"Every time we talked to public school officials about competing against them they would talk about insurance and GPA and standardized testing, and I was a little discouraged," Sweetland said. "We're right on the boarder with Kentucky, and Kentucky actually drafted a law that effectively barred us from competing. But Blake Russ and a number of coaches were very supportive.
"We can't compete in their state championships, but we can compete in their regular season so long as the local athletic directors are ok with it. We've been able to craft a series of meets and been very successful."
That success has reached a new level in 2010, particularly with the case of Hannah Rucker, in the picture above, who has been ranked as one of the state's top individual runners in Brown County by indianarunner.com since Sep. 14. Her teammates -- particularly Allie Vincent and Audrey Sweetland -- have also earned individual results that have drew praise and notice from opposing coaches, all which eventually pushed the Tommies into the top-10 of the Brown County section of the IHSAA poll.
After a second (girls) and fifth (boys)-place finish at last weekend's Horizon Christian Invitational, the HSU Tommies are now focusing on the second annual National Championships for independent and home school cross country teams. The meet will be held in Springfield, Missouri on Oct. 30, where the Tommies' boys team will defend the 2009 national title, one of the sparks that helped HSU forge a girls team for 2010.
"Last year we just had two girls, and they put it in their mind that they want to win that this year," Sweetland said. "And the two girls really wanted to have a team and they asked if I could do something about it, and I said 'Well, let's pray about it.' And we did, and suddenly we ended up with seven freshmen girls and a couple of eighth graders. And they're all great athletes."
Before the end of the month, they might even find that they're the best homeschooled cross country athletes in the entire country.