BLACKFOOT – For as long as most people can remember, the Atlantic Coast Conference has been having a “Midnight Madness” program in place to celebrate the opening of the college basketball season and practices every fall.

The schools often sell out entire basketball arenas as they hold their first official practice of the new season every fall.

Players and coaches are introduced and the newest players who have been recruited are able to begin to build those relationships with fans and fellow students and are able to showcase some of their talents through a number of drills and contests like slam dunk contests that often get the fans excited about the new basketball season.

Three years ago, coach Mike Kirkham started his own version of Midnight Madness, only it isn’t with basketball, it is with his cross country team at Snake River High School.

The other big differences are that not only has the team bought into the early morning start (12:01 a.m.), they do it outdoors, running under the light of the moon and stars, many with flashlights or with “headlights” like miners wear when working deep under ground.

“We wanted to do something different and emphasize the start of the season each year,” Kirkham said. “These kids deserve all the credit as they have built this into something special each fall.”

The first Midnight Madness run only drew a handful of members of the cross country team and they tentatively found their way along the Blackfoot greenbelt along a course designed by Kirkham himself. The runners found themselves running along the paved path along the Snake River and over a portion of the Blackfoot Municipal Golf Course.

The “Kirkham Course” as the runners call it, is approximately three miles in length, about the same distance as most cross country courses will be for competition during the fall. There is also a shorter course for the beginning runners that are coming into the program from the junior high school ranks.

The program attracted nearly 50 runners this year to a program that was almost non-existent three years ago. The Panthers are alive and thriving in 2019.

The Snake River Panthers cross country team don’t sell out any arenas, often toiling in solitude as they log mile after mile during the summer, when many high school athletes are taking time off or working on another athletic endeavors, but not at Snake River, where the dedication has been growing by leaps and bounds.

Kirkham started a new club within the cross country program a couple of years ago.

The “300 mile club” was for runners who could log 300 miles of running during the summer months between the end of school in late May and the start of the fall practices in mid-August. That usually translates into about a 10-week period and requires those runners to run about 30 miles every week, which amounts to about five or six miles per day, six days per week. That is a lot for most kids to commit to with all of the other summer activities that kids want to do.

Kirkham put up a prize for those who could finish the task, and there were a few who were able to sport a brand new jacket, with their name and “300 mile club” embroidered on the front and Snake River across the back.

This season, the cross country team set a record for jackets earned, some of them were even for a new “400 mile club” that was attained by some members of the team, including an incoming freshman.

As the summer running program has grown and more athletes are participating in the individually designed programs for each athlete, the Midnight Madness portion of the kickoff of the season has grown as well.

This season started off with a video showing the highlights of the 2018 season a year ago, which produced individual winners of the district championships as well as both girls’ and boys’ team titles.

With the growth of the program, more schools are beginning to take notice and either duplicate what is happening at Snake River, or setting up their own summer programs. It is a testament to what the runners and coaches at Snake River have been able to build in a very short amount of time.

This cross country program is growing at a rapid pace and who knows where the top end may be.

With recent successes and the growth of the program, a state title is well within reach, especially when you consider that the majority of the girls on the team are underclassmen, including the returning district champion in Reagan VanOrden. The thing VanOrden may not realize is that she has a target on her back now that she has a title, and there are members of her own team that are using it as motivation of their own. One thing is for sure, if the rest of the team begins to close in on VanOrden, it will not only make the team stronger and more competitive, but it will also make the individuals more competitive within their own squad and a little competition is always a good thing.

“We have such a good thing going right now it is a little bit scary,” Kirkham said. “We have involvement not only from the kids, but from the coaches and parents as well. What you saw tonight, with the laughing and celebrating of teamwork and camaraderie through the watching of the video and the refreshments and the way that they all ran together, watching out for each other, that is what it is all about.”