MANHATTAN — John Sillitti knew he sounded “cheesy,” but the longtime Manhattan cross country and track and field coach didn’t care.
After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the spring track season, Friday morning marked a special milestone for Sillitti, the Tigers and many athletes across the Treasure State: their first Montana High School Association-sanctioned practice since April.
“I feel lucky,” Sillitti said, “and I told the team that when we had our parent meeting the other night. It makes you realize how lucky we are just to have a season. I’ve been doing this for 20-some years, it’s easy to take for granted the things that are just always there every year. … Then the other pieces to the (pandemic) — the quarantine, the isolation and some of the other things we don’t have anymore — it really makes me appreciate the opportunity to have a season. I’m excited.”
It’s been a long five months since the MHSA was forced to cancel the state basketball tournaments mid-brackets and shut down the spring sports seasons. Sillitti acknowledged feeling the emotional toll of the pandemic after missing so much social interaction over the past few months. His roles, both as a coach and the Manhattan High School counselor, have existed largely in only virtual spaces.
Starting practices back up was the first step toward a return to normalcy for Sillitti, his team and the rest of the state’s high school athletes. Sure, they will face restrictions and guidelines that are in place to hopefully keep the seasons progressing onward, but just getting back together as a team was needed progress.
“I think it’s hugely important that we get back to having these sports,” Sillitti said. “I’m at a little Class B school in Montana, it’s not like we’re going to be competing for the national championship or anything, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the social connection and feeling like you belong to something.”
“The most important thing that we do is develop a team — more important than running and competing — and all those things we learn,” he added. “We learn leadership, we learn loyalty, we learn how to support each other. All of those things that are part of our core values are dependent on us being together as a team. Those things are super important to the development of these kids, and without sports we would have to really work hard to find a new way to develop those things.”
With those values in mind, Manhattan’s runners didn’t set competitive expectations at Friday’s practice. The Tigers aren’t yet evaluating their times and performances or trying to predict outcomes at the state meet, where the Manhattan girls recently claimed three consecutive Class B state championships from 2016-18 and the boys won back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. Athletes have a long way to go this fall before getting to that point, as the regular-season meet schedules and a specific plan for the state meet still need to be finalized.
There are state and MHSA restrictions to follow, and individual counties and cities will have more specific guidelines to implement as the season progresses. Policies will assuredly differ from school to school, as well. For example, Sillitti said Manhattan doesn’t have water fountains turned on, so athletes are required to bring their own water bottles. Sharing of water bottles is not permitted, either.
“I kind of think that cross country is going to be a little less affected by some of the restrictions than other sports,” Sillitti said. “We don’t share a ball, we’re non-contact, we don’t sit on the bench right together, but we’ll definitely be working through it.”
Still, there were a couple banner moments at Manhattan’s first practice of the 2020 cross country season. Julia Fowler and Kit Weirsema, two seniors on the girls team, ran lifetime-best times in the mile on Friday.
“It’s not like in football where you think you had your best game or best practice; we have stopwatches that tell us they ran the fastest they’ve ever run, and they were elated,” Sillitti said. “It didn’t take a crowd of people for them to think that was valuable or anything like that. It was just that sense of accomplishment, and then also just being there together, being back with each other.”
There will be time later for discussions on how to further improve those performances and start breaking down state meet projections — for what it’s worth, Manhattan’s girls project to be serious contenders for the State B title after last year’s runner-up finish to Townsend — but Friday was simply about getting together as a team.
“It just feels like hope,” Sillitti said. “There’s hope again. That’s kind of part of what sports give us, is hope — hope for the season, hope for things getting back to normal, hope for our country as a whole kind of getting back on track. It was a 7 a.m. practice, but once we got through some paperwork and stuff and actually got running, it was just good. It just felt normal and right again.”