By FRED KRONER
Jeff Kyle can relate to the life of construction workers.
They often arrive at vacant lots to build a house, staying at the job site until all of the finishing touches are completed.
Then, it’s off to another location to again build from the ground up.
Kyle, a Mahomet resident for 22 years, has done his building work with cross-country programs at the junior high school where he teaches physical education, Tolono Unity.
Last Saturday, his girls’ team won the Class 2A IESA state championship for the second year in a row.
Kyle is in his second stint with Unity Junior High School. Both times, building was required.
He took over a program in 1991 that had not qualified a team for state in cross-country for seven years.
In his second season, the Unity Junior High boys started a seven-year run of placing among the state’s top four teams, twice winning state titles (1996 and 1998).
The girls had three consecutive state appearances from 1996-98, winning the state title in 1997.
That was the elite state of the program he left in 1999 to coach cross-country at Unity High School for five years, before taking a break from school sports to coach his children in their various youth endeavors in Mahomet.
In late summer of 2010, Kyle’s phone rang.
The junior high cross-country coaching position at Unity was again open.
The girls’ squad had not advanced to state in 11 years, coinciding exactly with Kyle’s time away from the program.
A quick turnaround didn’t look probable.
The girls’ roster featured just one runner the year before Kyle returned.
“We hit the ground running,” Kyle said. “I figured we’d do the same things we did in the ‘90s.
“It worked then and it would probably work again.”
In his first year back, the Unity Junior High girls advanced to state.
The varsity lineup included one eighth-grader with the remainder of the runners in sixth grade.
“That year, we ended with 17 kids (between the boys and girls’ teams),” Kyle said.
“For six straight years, our numbers went up.”
Last year, there were 65 runners between the boys’ and girls’ teams. This year, there were 48.
In Year 2 of his return, the Unity girls were state champions.
Kyle and his staff — he got an assistant coach three years ago — don’t have a profoundly new way to teach running.
Many of the factors in the program’s resurrection are subtle.
It starts with work ethic, and that trait is important to more than the athletes.
“We put a lot of time into it,” Kyle said. “We have multi-sport athletes and I work those kids in the mornings.”
The multi-sport moniker isn’t a reference to the entire school year, but specifically for the fall season.
Among the fall choices for Unity students besides cross-country are baseball, soccer and girls’ basketball as well as school activities such as drama and Show Choir. Some boys participate in the Junior Football League.
“There may be as many as 15 kids (in the mornings),” said Kyle, who conducts a one-hour in-season workout from 7-8 a.m.
At the junior high level, Unity does not limit athletes to one sport per season. Part of the reason is that sports which now have conflicts in the fall are in different seasons once the students reach high school.
Girls, for example, can run cross-country in the fall at the high school level, play basketball in the winter and soccer in the spring.
Sharing athletes at the younger levels allows various sports the chance for success, both at the time and in the future.
Seventh-grader Raegen Stringer was the state runner-up last weekend in cross-country, clocking a 2-mile time of 11 minutes, 41.8 seconds.
She is also the starting point guard on the basketball team.
The other cross-country runners, those without conflicts, practiced after school.
“It takes a patient and understanding wife,” Kyle said. “I’m up by 5, coming to the school by 6:30 and then having the afternoon practices.”
Kyle has learned to incorporate fun activities into the training.
“We have a game we do, ‘Capture the Flag’ “ Kyle said. “They’re playing a game, but they are still running.
“Sometimes on Fridays before a meet, we will do a Casey’s Run. We’ll run to Casey’s, buy ice cream and then walk back to the school together.”
Creating camaraderie is a key element.
That’s a reason the coach makes an annual request of the parents.
“I encourage the parents to have their kids ride the bus home (after out of town meets),” Kyle said. “That’s time that is overlooked.
“Those kids bond and that keeps them interested.”
Summer activities are never mandatory.
“We have a laid-back summer,” Kyle said. “Starting in mid-June, we run three times a week.
“It’s open to everybody. We’ve had a high of 55 and some come every day.
“Some show up the first day of practice, and they are welcome, too.”
That program Kyle took back over in 2010 — the one without a team making state for 11 years — now has a streak of eight years at state in a row for the girls, with the boys qualifying five of the past seven years.
The Unity girls have not only reached state eight years in succession, but also placed among the state’s top five teams each of those years.
“The challenge is getting the ball rolling,” Kyle said. “Once you have success, the kids believe a little bit.
“We’ve had fantastic kids to coach.”
Sometimes, the building process restarts quicker than expected.
In 2017, on Unity’s state championship girls’ team, five of the team’s runners were either in seventh- or sixth-grade, including the top three runners.
What looked promising 12 months ago seemed less likely during the summer when the family that had the team’s two quickest runners moved to Rantoul.
“When you lose your top two runners, that’s a pretty big hit,” Kyle said, “but I told the team, ‘We won’t change our goals.’
“We’ll give it our best shot.”
Race results from last weekend showed how effective Unity was in its repeat.
In a field of 232, all seven Unity girls were among the top 45. That meant the entire squad was positioned in the top 20 percent in Class 2A.
Five squad members earned all-state accolades for placing among the top 25 and the team’s sixth runner was just two positions away from that recognition.
Unity registered the lowest point total ever in Class 2A girls (44 points) and had a 97-point margin of victory. When the Unity girls won state a year earlier, the winning margin was 17 points.
“I was stunned (last weekend),” Kyle said. “We had five brand new kids running at state.”
One member of Kyle’s fan club is Mahomet-Seymour junior high cross-country coach Lisa Martin.
“We look forward to the competition that they provide in our area and often set goals that are in line with running with their team,” Martin said. “One can see that for years, we have traded off local meet titles often and this makes for a fun season and a way to help improve all of our runners.
“We are thankful to have such a quality team, coached by a quality guy, located within a short drive from us.
“Jeff is one of my mentors and a confidant when it comes to coaching cross-country. He deserves recognition for his and his teams’ accomplishments.”
The Effingham native isn’t looking to relinquish the cross-country reigns soon.
“I have a few more years,” Kyle said. “I love what I do. I like going to practice every day, setting goals and working toward the goals.”
He celebrated the most recent state championship — the sixth Kyle has been a part of between the boys’ and girls’ teams — by taking Sunday off.
On Monday, he moved into a new season.
He is the eighth-grade boys’ basketball coach.
“Tryouts were Monday,” Kyle said. “It wasn’t much of a break.”