Photo by Sam Chandler.
Westminster School at Oak Mountain head cross-country coach Leslie Callahan, second from left, has turned the Knights into annual state title contenders in Class 1A-2A.
Heartbreaking could describe the way the Westminster School at Oak Mountain girls cross-country team lost the 2015 state title.
But head coach Leslie Callahan would disagree.
After her team’s one-point loss to Class 1A-2A rival St. Bernard Nov. 14 in Oakville, Callahan said she and her Knights celebrated the culmination of a hard-fought season by exploring Cullman and singing Christmas carols on the trip back to Birmingham.
“We didn’t leave with our heads hung,” Callahan said. “It was like, ‘What a season, girls, what a season.’”
Her positive reaction to what would conventionally be viewed as disappointment signifies the essence of the Westminster cross-country program. Accolades are to be enjoyed, Callahan said, but winning hardware is never the sole emphasis.
“That’s why I coach. It’s way more than just the end result,” she said. “It’s about the process. It’s what they learn about themselves that they’ll keep for life.”
Part of that approach is by design; part is by necessity.
Since Callahan took over as head coach in 2012 at the K-12 school of about 500 students, the Knights have evolved into annual state title contenders in their classification.
Prior to the runner-up finish in 2015, both the Westminster girls and boys posted runner-up performances at the 2014 state meet. In 2012 and 2013, the girls managed to crack the top three.
“I think the biggest thing is just loving each other and making each other better,” said senior Camryn Neal of the team’s success, “So the first person pushes the second person, and the second person pushes the first person, and we all pull each other up and up and up until all our times are better.”
The competition helps, too. Callahan, a former coach at Oak Mountain High School, said she frequently puts her Westminster teams in races that feature schools from larger divisions. While other teams may outnumber her 44 middle and high school runners, Callahan said her squads’ talent compensates for their lack of depth.
“I didn’t train them to win in their small fish pond,” Callahan said. “I trained them to be the best that they could be on any level.”
Even amidst the sustained success, Callahan said one of the chief challenges she continually faces is runner retention. Due to the degree of her athletes’ involvement in various activities outside of running — namely the school swim team, theater and club soccer — her participation numbers begin to decline as the season climbs toward its peak.
In past years, Callahan said key contributors have missed the state meet due to other obligations. Their presence, it seems, could have provided a critical boost in the team standings.
But the fifth-year coach isn’t concerned with what-ifs.
Rather, she’s focused on the everyday grind — the process — that has catapulted her school onto the cross-country map.
“What I’m proud of is the little things they do day-to-day. When you do all those little things right, the end is just a byproduct of all those little things,” Callahan said. “So at the very end, if half have to go play soccer, it doesn’t change the season. It doesn’t change how hard they’ve worked. It doesn’t change what they’ve found out about themselves.”
The AHSAA State Cross-Country Championships will be Nov. 12 at Oakville Indian Mounds Park.
As long as their top runners are ready to go on race day, the Westminster boys and girls are both positioned to make runs at a blue trophy. Senior Maddie Hoaglund, a four-time All-State performer, will pace her girls as they seek a victory over St. Bernard.
“I think as a team we’re really in a good place this year,” Hoaglund said. “I’m super excited for all of us.”