Resilience bonds Shawnee cross country coach, daughter

Miah and Brian DeSantis have helped make the Springfield Shawnee girls cross country team a powerhouse program. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
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Miah and Brian DeSantis have helped make the Springfield Shawnee girls cross country team a powerhouse program. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Brian DeSantis has built a powerhouse program as the Springfield Shawnee cross country coach. The boys have made seven consecutive trips to the state championships, the girls three. And while he’s had a few elite runners through the years, his teams primarily have succeeded because they’ve been stocked with workout warriors.

“I always say I can tell quickly who has the potential to be a great runner, and that’s because they’re the ones who get out there and grind it out and don’t complain,” he said. “And if anything, they want to do more, not less. I call that running tough.”

He has an ample supply of runners with that mentality again this season. And the most tenacious competitor of all is under his own roof.

His daughter, Miah (pronounced MY-uh), has represented the Braves at state each of her first three years — all while dealing with a series of ailments that would have derailed less hearty runners.

She’s had debilitating asthma, kidney stones that required her being hospitalized twice, a bout with anemia and allergies so bad they shut down her vocal chords.

But when you’ve already overcome life-threatening leukemia, you’re not going to let those other health issues get in the way.

“Because I had cancer, I’m not going to quit because of these things,” she said. “I just keep going through it.”

She doesn’t remember much about her leukemia. She was almost 4 when she was diagnosed. She recalls being constantly fatigued through two years of chemo and treatment — and how she couldn’t have her friends over for a couple of birthdays in a row because of the risk of getting sick with her immune system so low.

The memories are fresher for Brian and wife Tracy. Seeing their daughter go through that ordeal was almost more than they could bear.

“It’s the worst feeling imaginable,” Brian said. “You wish it was you instead of her, seeing her going through the pain of everything.”

Miah had the most common form of the disease, childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. About 6,000 people are stricken each year. The survival rate is roughly 80 percent.

But her father admitted he tended to dwell on the reality that 20 percent didn’t make it. And at one point, Miah was given a grim prognosis.

“When it all started, the doctor said one of her (blood) counts was so far off they hadn’t seen a child survive that,” Brian said.

While Miah was in and out of Dayton Children’s Hospital, the family received plenty of support — from their home church, the school and even DeSantis’ cross country teams that had grown close to her.

“She’d come to the meets back then and cheer the kids on, and she always said, when she was going through leukemia, that she was going to run cross country for me one day,” DeSantis said.

He paused, choking back tears.

“The one thing that gets me emotional in life is that little kid,” he said.

Miah made good on her promise. She’s one of four returnees from last year’s team along with senior Grace Holmes and sophomores Olivia Warax and Caylee Hirtzinger. They’re looking to improve on a 17th-place showing at the state in 2016.

A couple of key boys chose soccer over cross country, but the Braves appear loaded again with three veterans in juniors Keith Kaiser, Will Geist and Ethan Griffith. They were 11th at state a year ago.

“This season is off to a great start because these are the greatest group of kids ever,” DeSantis said. “They picked up right away on family and team. That’s what will make it a good season. They’ll all fight for one another.”

DeSantis, who works as a salesman for CenMac Metalworks based in Marion, coached cross country at Shawnee from 2001-07, then stepped aside for a couple of years so he could devote more time to Miah and younger daughter Audrey.

But as she was nearing high school age, Miah urged her father to coach the Braves again. She didn’t want to run for anyone but him.

“He’s my dad and I look up to him,” she said. “We’re like best buds. We do everything together. We have a lot of common interests.

“He makes me want to do better when I run. He’s the reason, through all of my struggles in high school and when I was younger, that I wanted to keep doing it.”