As North Dakota’s small-town populations have dwindled, cooperation agreements between schools, whether it be entire districts or just their sports teams, have become routine.

Though sports co-ops are common, my daughter, Ellen had some misgivings about Larimore (N.D.) High School’s decision in 2018 to join a cross county co-op with the North Dakota schools of Hatton and Northwood. Then a high school sophomore, Ellen was uneasy about becoming part of a team whose members had been together for several years, and agonized about many “what ifs” the summer before her first season on the new Hatton-Northwood-Larimore team: What if she didn’t make any friends? What if she didn’t like the coach? What if riding the bus between schools for practices made for too long of a day?

Her fears were put to rest on the first day, when the girls and boys from Hatton and Northwood welcomed her and made her feel at home, she quickly discerned the coach was excellent, and the bus rides with her teammates flew by because she was having so much fun laughing and talking with them.

As the season progressed, Ellen also discovered how much she enjoyed having teammates who were girls – she was the lone girl runner the previous season at LHS – and was impressed by how much they supported one another on and off the course.

Ellen also benefited from the friendly competition between the runners who pushed each other to work hard and get faster.

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Over the years, the bonds of Ellen’s friendship with her teammates strengthened and so did her performance on the course. One teammate in particular, Jenna Soine, and Ellen became close friends as they worked to improve their times and support each other’s goals in practices and at meets.

Last fall, Ellen and Jenna traded the Nos. 1 and 2 spots at most of the 2020 meets hosted by schools and finished in consecutive top 10 places at the Class B East Region and North Dakota state cross country meets.

A chronicle of the season in photos shows Ellen and Jenna running the courses side by side, stride for stride at the meets, then one of them pulling a few seconds ahead at the finish. Postseason photos show the two girls, big smiles on their faces, with their arms around each other wearing medals or holding plaques. The last photo of the season is them holding their All-State award and Most Valuable Hatton-Northwood-Larimore certificates, the last given for the individual, mutual, efforts they gave to the team.

The end of the fall season resulted in the termination of Ellen’s association with the cross country team because she’s a senior. However, it hasn’t meant the finish of her running with Jenna. The two best friends now are competing against – and pulling for – one another in the spring track season.

When Ellen qualified to go to the state meet in the 3200-meter event at a meet earlier this spring, Jenna cheered from the sidelines. Ellen did the same when Jenna qualified for state in the 3200 at another meet. In between those two meets, they competed against one another, and finished Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the 1600 meters, and both qualified for state with times one second apart.

The North Dakota State Track Meet, May 28-29 in Bismarck, will determine which of the two girls is the fastest in the 1600 and 3200, and they both will do their best. I have no doubt they both will be winners no matter who comes out ahead because of their friendship, forged through competition. A cooperative effort has assured that.

Ann Bailey is a Grand Forks Herald reporter who writes a personal column twice per month.