POLACCA, Ariz. (AP) — The group of boys head out toward the mesa, setting their feet upon dirt trails lined with scrub brush and corn fields. It's the same earth that their Hopi ancestors would tread as they ran in prayer for rain, prosperity and all of mankind.
For these boys, the drive is as much about the competitive spirit as the enduring spirit of their culture.
Hopi High School, where they are students, has earned 23 state cross-country titles in a row, and according to its coach, is one of three schools in the country to earn a perfect score at a state meet.
No high school in the nation is as dominant when it comes to winning consecutive championships, and the team wants to make sure the streak continues.
"We have a lot of pressure at every race," said junior Kelan Poleahla. "Everyone wants to beat us. Our job is to not let that happen."
Running is deeply rooted in the northern Arizona tribe's tradition as a way to carry messages from village to village and bless the reservation that gets little moisture with rain. Tribal members regularly challenge each other to footraces on the trails considered the veins of the villages, and running is prominent in ceremonies.
The boys on the team draw from that tradition and a desire to remain champions, as the school has done since shortly after it opened in 1987 to keep Hopis rooted in their culture and attending classes on their own land.
The team is led by coach Rick Baker, a high school and college runner known as "The Legend." His program encourages students to rack up 500 to 1,000 miles in the summer. During the cross-country season, the team meets for at least one early morning practice and daily afternoon practices during the school week, with a long run on Sundays.