When Heather Duley took over the cross country program at Blue Mountain College, several familiar faces graced her, ones that, not long ago, helped her start the sport at East Union.
In the last decade, East Union has developed a prominent cross-country program, consistently competing for state championships and breeding some of the area’s top runners. This tradition began in 2002 when Heather and her husband, Scott, started the program with nearly 50 runners attending the first practice.
“Scott started teaching and they didn’t have a cross country program,” Heather said. “I was a stay at home mom with three little kids, and it seemed like such a waste to not have a cross country team, so I talked with the principal and he agreed to support the program.”
Among the inaugural group of runners were Tuesdae Rowland, Austin Epting and Richard Feist, students all new to the sport. While they came from different athletic backgrounds, each found an individual love for the sport.
“I’m not the most athletic person in the whole world,” Rowland laughed. “I didn’t play any other sports, and I heard about it in Mr. Duley’s class. For some reason I just decided to do it, and I had a lot of fun.”
Several had stories similar to Rowland’s, while Epting and Feist each ran as a requirement for the other sports they participated in; Epting in baseball and Feist in basketball. Regardless, with no formal training or summer workouts, Duley took her first team to Saltillo and ran the group on the junior high level. Finishing third overall, the team competed in their first 5K only a week later.
“Our finish in Saltillo was a huge surprise,” Duley said. “Everyone was so excited, so I took them to the Riverfest run the next week, and they competed in their first 5K.”
In their first 5K, Epting and Feist each ran close to a time of 23:17, while Rowland spent a majority of her first year near the end of every race, a feat astonishing to hear now, as she has shed over 10 minutes off of her first time of 40:17.
After that first year, the program took off, as East Union finished runner-up in 1A boys in 2003 as well as boasting the 1A individual champion in Drew Dillard. That tradition carried on into the next year, as Feist was crowned the individual champ in 2004 and Epting in 2005.
“The third year, everyone expected Drew to win the individual title again,” Duley explained of Feist’s title. “We were all at the finish line yelling for him before we realized it was Richard who was in the lead. We were all very excited for him when he won.”
The group would eventually part ways with Duley eventually stepping down as coach and briefly moving to Kentucky, Feist transferring to Saltillo and Rowland to Ripley. Epting remained at East Union, where he would win one more individual title as a senior in 2008.
The group went on to success at their different schools, but as fate would have it, the trio of runners would reunite at Blue Mountain College that next fall.
“We all talked before about us being together again,” Epting said. “At night when I pray, I’m like ‘God, how did this happen,” but I’m glad it did, and it’s been great.
With the runners back together at BMC, it was only fitting that Duley joined a year later, replacing long-time Topper coach, Fred Smith.
“When we found out she got the job,” Feist explained, “we talked about how funny it is that she started us, and now she’s going to finish us.”
“Yeah, finish y’all off,” Duley added, laughing.
While she stepped away from coaching, Duley still remained in contact with her runners, making it a point to keep track of their success throughout high school.
“I remember coming back and they were taller than me, but it was really neat to see them start, literally, as little kids and young since they were all around 12 or 13, and to see them start to enjoy the sport,” Duley said. “At the end of the first year, I could tell they were serious and wanted to be competitive, but to actually see it years later, they were more competitive and faster, and it was great to watch.”
In her first year as head coach, Duley watch as the three who helped start the East Union program reached the highest point of their careers, running in the NAIA Nationals in Vancouver, Washington.
“It’s a totally different experience at that level,” Epting said. “Richard and Tuesday have run at Nationals before, but it was the first time for me, and it was literally just a madhouse running in that race against the best in the nation.”
Rowland was the top BMC female runner, finishing with a time of 20:47. Epting was the top male finisher for the Toppers with his time of 27:11 and Feist finished not long after his teammate at 28:15.
The trio were among the five runners representing Blue Mountain this year, and with their continuous work ethic and determination, Duley looks forward to what is in store for the program in the coming years.
“They’ve all matured into good, competitive runners, and I really am blessed to have watched them from young people grow up into good, mature adults and grow in character,” she said. “There’s not a finer group of runners that these three right here. They’re easy to coach, and it’s worked well for me because they knew my coaching style and personality, so coming in, it wasn’t a big transition. They all understood where I was coming from.”
“We just picked it right back up.”