Eighth-graders Mattie Shirley-Fairbairn and Michaela Dora are giving the Demons’ girls cross country team an upgrade.

Shirley-Fairbairn, 13, and Dora, 14, are the team’s fastest and third-fastest runners, respectively, for Bismarck High School.

“I was excited and anxious for the first meet,” Shirley-Fairbairn said.

Dora has had previous experience running for BHS at the state meet last year.

“This year, I feel much more comfortable and prepared,” Dora said. “I’m more excited this year because I know what I’m up against and what to expect so I can place myself better to do well.”

Shirley-Fairbairn moved to North Dakota from South Dakota this summer. This is her first year running for a team in Bismarck.

“In Lead, the middle school practiced with the high school all the time, and we only had four girls on the team,” Shirley-Fairbairn said. “Everyone (from BHS) was nice but the team was big and it was hard to learn everyone’s names.”

Learning she would no longer be the youngest member of the team took some weight off Dora’s shoulders.

“When I found out I wouldn’t be the only eighth-grader, I was relieved, knowing that there was someone else my age participating and going through the same thing,” Dora said.

This is not the first time BHS has had young runners on the team.

“We have had middle school girls on each of our past five championship teams,” head coach Scott Reichenberger said. “In fact, all of the girl’s championship teams in the state of North Dakota over the past decade have had middle school runners race for them at the state meet.”

Although there is some pressure, both girls say they prefer running in high school meets to running for middle school.

“I think that us younger runners do feel quite a bit of pressure to do well, mostly because we haven’t participated in as many races as most of the older girls, but I think that we feel about the same amount of pressure as everyone else,” Dora said.

“There are things that I miss about running for Wachter like being with my classmates, but now that I know the high school team better I love it just as much,” Dora said.

Shirley-Fairbairn says she welcomes the challenge of running at a higher level.

“I kind of regret not getting to run for Wachter, but I have run in plenty of middle school meets before,” Shirley-Fairbairn said.

Both girls say they appreciate that there is a team that stands with them.

“I think that us younger runners do feel quite a bit of pressure to do well, mostly because we haven’t participated in as many races as most of the older girls but I think that we feel about the same amount of pressure as everyone else,” Dora said.

Reichenberger says he makes sure he does not put more responsibility on any one of his runners than the others.

“Younger runners that can compete at the varsity level are treated the same as the veterans because that’s how they want to be treated,” Reichenberger said. “Every runner on a team, regardless of her age, has a responsibility to help their team. It doesn’t matter if she is the first runner or the last runner on the team. They all have a personal responsibility and team responsibility.”

BHS senior Alicia Swagger, a four-year team veteran, agrees.

“We are all in cross country for a reason, and age shouldn’t matter as long as you are doing what you love and, hopefully, bringing back the state title for the third time,” Swagger said. “I say the coaches treat them as anyone else on the team.“

Swagger notes a positive effect on the team’s performance with the younger girls’ presence.

“I believe we would not be at the same level (without the eighth-graders) as we are now because of their athletic ability,” Swagger said.

Photos by Haleigh Gensburg and Darrell Anderson.