CEDAR RAPIDS — By name alone, Dropoff Day doesn’t sound like a good thing.
“It’s a day that we get on the bus, and it takes us out somewhere and drops us off,” said Andrew Bickford, a senior member of the Cedar Rapids Prairie cross country team. “Then we run back to the school.”
A midseason Dropoff Day was a turning point for the Hawks’ spirits. It was the day they knew things were going to be OK.
“We were running along, and Coach (Bill Schwarz) drove by us,” Bickford said. “His wife (Molly) was driving and he was riding. He had brought a cowbell along and was clanging it as they drove by.
“It was the first time I had seen him since March.”
Schwarz has spent most of the last six months at home, recovering after a tonsillar cancer diagnosis. He underwent seven weeks of daily radiation, and seven chemotherapy treatments.
“I’m doing better and better,” he said earlier this week. “I had a tough couple of months, but I’m getting stronger. I’m starting to eat, and my voice is getting stronger.”
Strong enough to attend the Hawks’ last three meets of the season. Schwarz, 58, sat in a lawn chair at a race at Seminole Valley Park, walked part of the course at the Mississippi Valley Conference divisional meet in Cedar Falls, and “started to do a little yelling” at the Class 4A state-qualifying meet last Wednesday at Pleasant Valley.
There was plenty to yell about. Prairie’s boys were district champions behind Bickford’s runner-up finish. The girls were second, three points behind Pleasant Valley.
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Both teams advanced to Friday’s state championships at Lakeside Golf Course in Fort Dodge. The girls will race at 10:30 a.m., the boys at 11.
“I’m going to give it a try,” he said. “If my advocate (Molly is his wife of four years) can get me out there ... I’m very excited about how we’re going to do. The kids are starting to perform like we knew they could.”
“I’m so proud of them. The kids, the coaches, all of them.”
The longtime coach of the boys’ program, Schwarz coached them to six top-three finishes since 2009, with 4A championships in 2010 and 2013.
Last year, the boys’ and girls’ teams were incorporated under one umbrella, but Schwarz has been far from the only voice. In his absence this fall, the program still has had eight coaches, with Michael Tierney leading the boys’ squad and Matt Sima in charge of the girls.
“The kids really stepped up,” said Tierney, in his fifth year as an assistant. “They took ownership. One of our goals is character, treating people well. And we haven’t had a single negative email about any of their behavior.”
Also the boys’ track and field coach, Schwarz’s symptoms started in March with a sore throat.
“I had to leave (track) practice one day because I wasn’t able to open my mouth,” he said. “I thought it was just a cold, but I kept losing weight, so I got into (the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics), and there was a big mass in my throat.”
Chemo and radiation started soon after the diagnosis. The only surgery was to insert a feeding tube, which Schwarz hopes to have taken out within a month.
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Schwarz was insistent “that this story not be about me,” but wanted his ordeal to raise awareness of tonsillar cancer, which he learned is connected with HPV: “It’s kind of an epidemic right now among males,” he said.
Bickford and senior Hunter Kalous have been Prairie’s steady leaders all season, and now guys like Anthony Lee, Bryson Canton and Ty Costigan have gained ground. The improved depth have the boys as a potential top-five contender Friday.
“We think that’s attainable,” Tierney said. “We’re hoping we run really well, some dominoes fall and maybe we can make it onto the deck (as a top-three team).”
Freshman Keirra Hess led the Prairie girls with a fourth-place regional finish, followed by Gabby Cortez, Lily Johannes, Kendall White and Riley Coulter. The Hawks are hopeful they can be one of the next best teams after the presumed top three of Johnston, West Des Moines Valley and Linn-Mar.
Bickford is ranked 10th among 4A boys.
“It’s been a good time for me to step into a leadership role, having the younger kids looking up to me,” he said. “For some reason, everything has just clicked this year. I’m putting in the same effort, but getting better results.
“When Coach Schwarz showed up at that first meet, it was a great surprise. It really lifted our spirits. When we see him, it’s a big motivator.
“When he’s there, we are complete.”
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