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It's The Dog Days Of Summer, Again, For This Tampa-Area Cross-Country Team

A brown and white medium dog with floppy ears and a yellow bandana that says adopt me, has his tongue out after lapping up some water.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
The boys cross-country team at George M. Steinbrenner High School in Lutz run three mornings a week with shelter dogs. Cliff, one of the dogs up for adoption, takes a break to lap up some water.

Student-athletes at a local high school have been waking up early this summer to pick up some running companions — dogs from the Humane Society.

The members of ‘Boss Cross,’ the boys cross-country team at George M. Steinbrenner High School in Lutz, start most of their summer mornings running. But three times per week, their two-legged runs add four paws.

That’s because they include dogs from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

“We usually wake up around six or earlier and we come down to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, we go and get the dogs from their kennel, and we come to Al Lopez Park and run with them for about a mile,” said Taylor Stanley, a rising senior on the team.

A group of high school boys in t shirts and shorts run alongside shelter dogs on leashes.
Daylina Miller
Members of the boys cross-country team at George M. Steinbrenner High School in Lutz run a few mornings a week at the nearby Al Lopez Park with shelter dogs who need regular exercise.

The program started five years ago. The original batch of students-athletes were given training on how to appropriately manage the animals.

Since then, it has become a tradition for the team, as that knowledge is passed down every year.

“I feel happy for them that they're out here,” Stanley said. “It's good training for us, too. I really like it and it gets me in a good mood because we get to help these dogs.”

Glen Hatchell, behavior manager for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, said the jogs help calm the dogs down.

“They're having that away-from-the-shelter time, which for a lot of dogs, especially if they're having a little anxiety or stress, that time away from the shelter can help them cope with it better,” Hatchell said.

The partnership has helped with adoption numbers, too.

Two teenage boys in dark blue and yellow cross country t shirts pose with their shelter dog, a medium sized brown and white dog with floppy ears and a yellow bandana.
Daylina Miller
High school cross country athletes Taylor Stanley, left, and Mason Cantrell, right, pose with Cliff, one of the dogs up for adoption at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

Team members post photos of the dogs on social media to spread the word. The exercise also relaxes the pups when they get back to the shelter, which is something adopters tend to look for.

“Now we've got these high energy dogs that are coming back that are still going to be pretty energetic,” Hatchell said. “But still there's a lot of them that come back from that that they're really chilled out and the good thing is the potential adopters can see a calm dog.”

Team members are assigned to specific dogs and tend to take the same one each time they go out. If their furry companion gets adopted, they are given a new one.

“We'll see them get adopted every couple weeks,” said Mason Cantrell, another rising senior on the team. “We'll notice the dog we're running with is adopted now and it's cool to see, because just a couple weeks ago, they were in a kennel and a cage all day.”

“Most dogs aren’t as excited to go outside as these dogs are. So seeing them be as excited as they are when they get here, and they're happy, that’s the cool thing to see,” he added.

The dogs are not the only ones who benefit from the partnership.

The student-athletes receive volunteer hours, which helps them when they apply to college. Many receive enough volunteer time to apply for the highest awards associated with the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

A woman in a dark blue and yellow cross country t shirts speaks into a mic.
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Coach Allison Szponar says the summer morning runs with shelter dog's strengthen the team's connection, give them material for college essays, and instills the meaning of the cross country team's pillars: gentleman, scholar, and athlete.

“Our guys, I think every single essay that they've ever written for college, they talk about this program,” Coach Allison Szponar said.

She hopes to train the young men beyond the track. That’s reflected in the three pillars the team is founded on: gentleman, scholar, and athlete.

“Gentlemen — they shake your hand, they look you in the eye, they thank you, they advocate for themselves as gentlemen do. Scholars — they need to get it done in the classroom, not just on the course. And then athlete is the easiest. So you take care of the first two, and then the coaches will take care of the athlete portion,” Szponar said.

“I believe that culture drives success. Instill those qualities early on, and then the rest of your life will be a lot better.”

But more than anything, the summer morning runs strengthen the team’s connection before the season starts in the fall.

“Out here sharing that bond of being up every morning at 5:45 or 6 while most people are still sleeping because it's summertime, we're up early running with the dogs with each other all morning,” Cantrell said. “It's a cool way to connect with the team over the dogs.”

As Cantrell prepares to pass the baton to younger runners, he said he is thankful that he has been able to help the dogs for three years.

“It's just a cool thing we do,” he said. “One of my favorite traditions.”

A teenage boy in a red shirt and blue ballcap takes a break from running to pet a dark brown dog.
Daylina Miller
Matt Crosswell, a rising junior at George M. Steinbrenner High School in Lutz, takes a break from running to pet Charlie II, one of the dogs up for adoption at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.

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