While cross country is certainly a team sport, it has a very individual aspect to it as well. Runners must find a personal motivation to run more than three miles at a high pace. Often, they do not have a teammate or a coach nearby to look to for encouragement. Sometimes the best motivation can be found at home.
At least, that is the case for Courtni Heckert, Mercedes Heckert, Emma Bixler and Hailey Bixler. All four girls are members of the Neligh-Oakdale cross country squad. All four also happen to be stepsisters. Courtni and Mercedes are the daughters of Craig Heckert while Emma and Hailey are the daughters of Lia Heckert. Craig and Lia married in 2012, bringing the girls together.
Emma and Hailey, both freshman, began running cross country as seventh graders. Shortly after, Courtni, a junior, decided to give cross country a try as well. Mercedes, who goes by Sadie for short, the youngest of the four, decided to try cross country this year as a seventh grader thanks to a little encouragement.
“I talked her into it,” Courtni said with a slight chuckle.
It would be easy to assume that with four distance runners in the family, Craig and Lia would be distance runners themselves. That’s certainly not the case.
“Anything over 200 meters is too long,” Lia joked.
Not being distance runners themselves, Craig and Lia have had to find other ways to encourage their daughters to do their best.
“We just try our hardest to make it to as many events as we can,” said Lia.
The four girls do their best to motivate each other as well, training together in the summer and working together in practice. With the hectic summer schedule that comes with bringing two families together, oftentimes it Courtni and Sadie ended up running together while Emma and Hailey worked with each other.
“Summer schedules are kind of difficult sometimes. The girls are at their other parents, so that can make it kind of tough,” Craig explained.
So far in 2016, the four girls have had varying degrees of success. Courtni and Emma have struggled with injuries for much of the season. Sadie is the only seventh grade girl on the cross country team so she has been working to keep up with some of the older runners. Hailey has had a strong season, running on varsity for a majority of the year, an accomplishment she found surprising.
“I was pretty bad in seventh grade and I was kind of mediocre in eighth grade,” Hailey recalled.
“But you’re pretty good now,” Emma added.
For Hailey, as well as the rest of the girls, much of their success can be credited to coach Rick Eicholt. All four girls agree that Eicholt does what he can to make cross country a sport worth trying, even if you are unsure of your abilities. He does different things to keep practice fun and exciting, such as river runs, watermelon runs and hosting team dinners after practice.
The girls all also find cross country enjoyable because of the positive environment that it brings. At meets, parents and fans, regardless of the team they are there for, will cheer on all the runners and offer encouragement throughout. If a runner falls, it’s certainly not uncommon to see other runners stop and help them up. It also gives everyone a chance to participate.
“I know personally from volleyball that sometimes you don’t get to play,” said Sadie, who also participates in junior high volleyball. “But in cross country, you get to do it no matter if you’re good or bad or if the coach doesn’t want to put you in.”
The girls, along with the rest of the Neligh-Oakdale cross country squad, now must set their sights on the conference meet on Friday at Neligh’s Antelope Country Club. From there, they will look to do well at the district meet in Ainsworth for a chance to compete in the state meet in Kearney in two weeks.