By Heidy Brosofsky-Weaver

Standing in the middle of a busy corridor at Fruit Cove Middle School, Phillipine Rydel, a new seventh grade student from France, frantically looked for answers for her pressing questions. Lost, anxious, and unable to speak but a few words of English, she breathed a sigh of relief as a French-speaking teacher rescued her by providing directions to cross country (XC) practice.

XC Coach Jill Benavides then warmly welcomed Rydel to the 138-member team. “She quickly found her new family and closest friends,” Benavides said.

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When asked about her XC highlights, Rydel proudly shared the perseverance of a fellow runner.

“Chloe (Iliff) had a really bad knee injury, but she still placed third in State,” she said. “Chloe showed us that when you push to do your best, you can if you believe,” added Rydel, who came in first in the district meet and seventh in the state competition. 

Iliff agreed that XC takes “a lot of perseverance and faith to keep going.” The eight grader originally joined the team three years ago, following her sister’s footsteps and soon discovering her own love for the sport.

“At first, I didn’t want to do it, but it was so fun,” said Iliff. “Also, trusting in God really helps me to have more confidence — you can just see Him working on our team.”

Mia Till also likes the aspects of family, faith, and having a supportive leader.

“Coach Benavides is the best coach I’ve ever had in my life,” said Till, who first joined XC to increase her endurance for soccer. Till said Benavides gives her runners confidence and love and puts their needs before her own. “She has taught us that everyone matters, and we even cheer for our opponents.”

Benavides joined the team eight years ago as a pacer and has always loved connecting with young athletes through the sport that has brought her joy. Three years later, the mother of four became head coach. Although she was nervous about the time demands, she knew coaching would give her a chance to pour truth and value into the lives of runners, helping them develop a love for the sport and appreciate the importance of a true team. “Cross country is so much more than training the legs of these young people. It is reaching and directing their hearts to be the best person they can possibly be,” said Benavides.

Benavides continued, “Teaching them to lay down their personal agenda for the better of the team takes patience, diligence, and grace. Once they understand the overall goal, they are willing to work hard, and they reach their personal goals, as well.” 

Her runners agreed that training can be intense — especially during mile repeats.

Eighth grade student Ariana Brux said of Benavides: “She builds you up – not just saying, ‘Oh, you should be better.’ She runs with us and explains the value of what we are doing.”

Both the XC boys and girls teams won first place in the Florida Youth Championship in Lake City. In addition, the girls’ team won second in the Florida Middle School State Championship in Lakeland.

Photo courtesy Heidy Brosofsky-Weaver

Jill Benavides and runners 

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