TWIN FALLS — A year ago, Lindsey Anderson was coaching track in California. Zak Montoya was preparing for his freshman year at Idaho State University. Kimball Lloyd was beginning his senior year at Jerome High School.
On Friday night, those three congregated at the College of Southern Idaho's outdoor challenge course with 23 other freshmen. They were part of a team that didn't exist 12 months ago.
This was the first week of organized practice for CSI's renewed cross country program. The runners are still getting to know each other, which is why Anderson — the head coach — set up Friday's excursion to the challenge course. It was a team-building exercise for a squad in the final stages of construction.
"I’m really excited about the team that’s come together, and I think we’re gonna do really well, even though we're a bunch of freshmen our first time coming back," Anderson said. "I see a lot of potential, and I think they see and feel it, as well."
Friday's adventure had little cross country value on its face. The runners attached harnesses to their bodies, climbed 30 feet up a telephone pole replica and walked across logs and wires.
The exercises helped the athletes build appreciation for the ground, but the purpose was building bonds. One station, called the High Wild Woozy, involved two wires. Two teammates stood on each wire, faced each other and latched hands. They then walked laterally, trying to reach the other pole without falling off the wire (ropes were attached to their harnesses to prevent season-ending accidents).
The 25 runners seemed especially comfortable around each other, considering how recently most of them met.
CSI announced the addition of cross country and distance track in September 2016, ushering in the first Golden Eagle running program this century. The last time CSI had a cross country or distance track team was 1998-99.
"The conversation has been off and on for the past five or six years," CSI athletic director Joel Bate said. "We’ve looked at feasibility studies, and we're really looking at it as an enrollment prop right now. Is this a way to even attract more kids to our school?"
Anderson was a distance runner at Weber State University from 2003 to 2007. She qualified for the 2007 and 2009 World Championships in the steeplechase. In 2008, she reached the Beijing Olympics, where she finished 24th.
After years as a Weber State assistant, Anderson moved to Bakersfield, California. Weber State head women's cross country/track coach Paul Pilkington told Anderson about the CSI job last fall, less than a year after she moved to California. Last November, Anderson accepted the job.
Anderson's next nine months involved intensive recruiting. She first reached out to high school coaches and other contacts in the Intermountain West, and eventually found athletes that were good enough to run in college but hadn't signed anywhere yet.
"You have to sell yourself, because I don’t have a program. I don’t have runners that they can come meet and get to know," Anderson said. "You have to sell the potential of what this can be."
Montoya graduated from Minico in 2016. After track season that May, he figured his running career was over. He had no college offers, so he enrolled at Idaho State.
Around Thanksgiving, a high school coach told him about CSI's new program. He emailed Anderson. She responded with workout routines, and eventually a scholarship offer. Montoya, who ran his junior and senior years at Minico, did not have to think long about leaving Pocatello for Twin Falls.
"I just hated the feeling of not competing," he said. "I didn’t feel like I reached my potential running because I’d done it for such a short time. I wanted to see if I could come back out here and see how good I can get."
Lloyd was set to go to BYU-Idaho up until June, which is when he first heard about CSI's program. Anderson couldn't offer him a scholarship, but he could walk-on. And so he did.
"Now that I’ve taken this decision, I’m all on board," Lloyd said. "I have a lot of hopes."
The Golden Eagles don't have a conference yet, but that might change in the next few years. Bate said several Scenic West Athletic Conference teams have considered adding running programs soon.
This year, CSI will run at some regional junior college meets, and they'll even face some Division I schools, including Idaho State and Utah Valley.
Anderson and her athletes have high expectations going into this season, despite the limitations. This year is not a test run.
But more than anything else, they're excited to prolong their running careers.
"The only pressure we have is the pressure on ourselves to be as good as we want to be, and to make the program as good as it can be," Montoya said. "We get to put our hand print on it."