n a picture postcard-perfect autumn afternoon - clear and crisp, complemented by colors of the surrounding aspen trees - Fuji Park was bristling with activity on Thursday.
A small group of youngsters occupied themselves kicking a soccer ball around. Mothers and fathers chatted with friends. Suddenly, everyone's attention is caught by the crack of a gun as a pack of middle school runners charge across the lawn.
This was the 18th annual Tah-Neva Cross Country Championships, a meet that brought more than 300 runners representing 10 schools to compete in their final meet of a season that began in early September.
This was more than just a cross country meet for 6th, 7th and 8th graders (some were even younger). The Tah-Neva meet was a social affair, Austin Angell points out.
"It's like a big picnic for 300 kids and their parents," said Angell, the meet director. "It's just a neat atmosphere. That's why the kids have such a good time."
More than 360 students were registered in the league this fall, an increase from the four schools that sent 48 runners in 1982.
A glance at the list of participants who have competed in the past reveals some well known names,some who went on to become state high school cross country and track champions - Jody Carlsen (now runner No. 1 for the University of Nevada women) ... Kim Orlando ... Bob Ryser ... Sarah Piccolo ... Jenny Smokey ... Others went on to excel in other sports around the area - Erica Fischer, a state champion swimmer for Carson who now competes at Ohio State ... Steven Haase, the 1989 Northern 3A basketball MVP for South Tahoe who played basketball at the Air Force Academy ... and Cody Farnworth, a two-time Tah-Neva champ who became a three-sport star at Carson High School and is now an assistant coach in football, basketball and baseball at Dayton.
Not all were winners in their middle school races. But that has never been the No. 1 focus of Tah-Neva League cross country.
"I love these meets. This is what makes the season fun," said Penny Sparks, who coaches the Bethlehem Lutheran School program in Carson City. "I think it's a blessing for these middle school kids. Washoe County doesn't have an organized league like this; they have three meets, that's it."
Sparks also coaches the Carson City Striders team that is now preparing for Junior Olympic qualifying meets next month in San Jose and Pleasanton, followed by the Junior Olympic nationals in Chicago in December.
Annie Brinson, a 6th grader who celebrated her 12th birthday on Oct. 18, is one of the Striders who has set her sights on running for the Striders in Chicago. On Thursday, she was merely happy with her first-place finish for Bethlehem Lutheran in the Tah-Neva 7th grade girls race. That, and having a good time.
"The meets are a lot of fun," said Brinson, who won five of her seven races this season. "It's hard, but it's good.
"The social part, making friends, that's the fun part. And turning around (in the finish chute) and seeing my teammates were so close. I'm proud of them."
Brinson ran well enough to win her race in a time of 10 minutes, 40 seconds, closely followed by three other Bethlehem Lutheran Crusaders: Amanda Benson (11:08, Ali Marson (11:09) and Emily Johnson (11:14). The sweep helped Bethlehem Lutheran score 17 points to win its second 7th girls team championship in the last three years.
"They've been undefeated all season. They're just an awesome bunch of girls," Sparks said.
Like any other athletic competition, lessons are learned. One is that there are no sure things - that's why the races are run in the first-place - a case in point being the first-place finish of South Tahoe's Zach Powers in the 8th grade boys race. Jeffrey Martin had been unbeaten for Bethlehem Lutheran during the regular season, but Powers won this time.
"It wasn't Jeffrey's day. And Zachary ran well; he's a good boy," Sparks said.
"This was no fluke," Angell said of Powers, who was the league's 7th grade champion in 1998. "He ran real well last week, today he came back and went out as hard as he could."
Thursday also happened to end a marathon run for Angell at South Tahoe Middle School. Angell, a chef by trade, spent 25 seasons as South Tahoe's head cross country coach. For the occasion, his mother and brother came from the Bay Area to watch his final meet.
South Tahoe's Timberwolves made the farewell memorable by winning three of the four divisions. The meet would have been memorable anyway, according to Angell.
"If I'd won zero, I still would have enjoyed it," Angell said. "Coaching the kids is as much fun now as it was 25 years ago. It's like I just started yesterday."
A successful meet? Angell made one more observation afterward as he looked across the parking area and spotted a single automobile at the far end.
"When you can't find a place to park," he said. "That's a sign of a successful meet."