Natchitoches hosts 10,000 visitors Monday and Tuesday at LHSAA Cross Country meet

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Runners competing in the boys class 4A heat of the LHSAA state cross country championships leap over some deep water left after heavy rains swept through the Natchitoches area early Tuesday morning. --Douglas Collier/The Town Talk- -Photo Caption- -11/19/2003 B3 The field in the Class 4A boys race at the LHSAA State Cross Country Meet in Natchitoches Tuesday leap a stream of water after severe thunderstorms passed through central Louisiana Monday night and early Tuesday morning. - Douglas Collier/The Town Talk

During his days as a Northwestern State distance runner in the mid-1980s, Dr. Chris Maggio remembers helping Demon track and field coach Leon Johnson recruit future standout Mark Spikes when he competed for DeRidder High at the first Louisiana High School Athletic Association Cross Country Championships hosted in Natchitoches.

Since then, the city, and NSU, have remained hosts for two days of LHSAA championship races and a practice day before competition begins. For a few years, the LHSAAalternated the state meet site between Natchitoches and Baton Rouge, before deciding the advantages offered in Louisiana’s oldest city were overwhelming. For at least the last quarter-century, the annual mid-November event has been staged on the NSU campus annually.

About 3,000 competitors will vie for 14 state championships Monday and Tuesday at the Walter P. Ledet Track Complex as another 7-10,000 supporters are expected to visit Natchitoches for the 2018 LHSAA Cross Country Championships.

Monday’s races involve runners from smaller schools, Classes C, B, A and 2A. Races begin at 10 a.m. and continue until after 3:30.

Tuesday’s schedule begins at 11 with the Class 3A girls race, with girls in classes 4A and 5A following at 45 minute intervals until the sequence repeats in boys competition with the 3A boys at 1:15. Competition should finish after 3:15.

“It has been a privilege – and definitely not something which has been taken for granted – for NSU and the City of Natchitoches to host the LHSAA cross country championship meet for many years,” said NSU athletic director Greg Burke. “We are committed to conduct a meet which makes competitor and fan experience a top priority.”

Maggio and Burke have been very involved in administering the state meet for years, providing incomparable expertise. Natchitoches Mayor Lee Posey and Arlene Gould of the Natchitoches Convention and Tourism Bureau were also key last summer when the LHSAA awarded the 2018 and 2019 state meets to Natchitoches and NSU.

Maggio, a lifelong Natchitoches resident, has been hands-on with the event from its outset, and realizes the value to the special “town and gown” relationship between Natchitoches and Northwestern.

Holy Savior Menard’s Mark Dotson crosses the finish line to claim the Class 2A boys cross country title in Natchitoches on Tuesday. Dotson paced the Eagles to a third-place team finish. Leandro Huebner/lhuebner@thetowntalk.com

“This event, and events like this, are vitally important to us because of the positive exposure our campus and city receive,” he said. “Over 3,000 high school students and thousands of parents, family members and supporters converge on campus for three days each November.  This event has a multi-million dollar economic impact on our region annually, and students get to see first-hand our beautiful campus and facilities.”

“It’s a huge economic impact for our community directly, and also down the road,” Posey said.  “This is big for our hotels, restaurants, gas stations, businesses, especially those downtown in the Historic District, and it generates a lot of sales tax revenue that helps everyone here. One of the great benefits is that many of these are first-time visitors who see our town, experience the hospitality, and a lot of them come back again and again to enjoy all that Natchitoches offers. We develop relationships.”

The guidance of Johnson, head track coach at NSU for 31 years until his retirement, has been pivotal. Mike Heimerman arrived in Natchitoches in 1996 to throw the shot put and discus for the Demons, and has never left, serving as an assistant coach after graduation, becoming head women’s coach and eventually succeeding Johnson in 2013. Johnson, still active at 78, remains on the meet’s steering committee while Heimerman and his staff pour many hours of planning and preparation into staging a constantly-improving LHSAA championship event.

“This event has been successful and has a continuing vote of confidence from the LHSAA due to the diligent work of many, starting with our track and field coaching staff and student-athletes. In addition, the volunteer efforts of many individuals both on-campus and in the community have been paramount to preparing for and hosting an event of this magnitude,” said Burke. “This event truly represents the epitome of town and gown collaboration.”

The enormous resources provided by the university, along with the nationally-recognized ability of the local community to welcome visitors (USA Today readers votedNatchitoches the “Best Small Town in the South” in 2015), provide undeniable appeal for LHSAA competitors and guests.