Ask anyone connected to the Seymour High School cross-country teams who their No. 1 supporter is and they will likely have the same answer.
It’s a woman who goes by the name of “The Owls Power Cookie Grandma.”
Joanne Sunbury has baked “Owls Power Cookies” — Owl-shaped, purple frosted cookies — for both teams’ postseason meets for quite a while.
She estimated she began the tradition when one of her daughters was on a volleyball team in the early 1980s, and started baking them for the cross-country team probably around 1983 when her son Steve was on the high school team.
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She has no plans to quit.
The 81-year-old Seymour resident prepares the cookies before sectionals, regionals, semistate and state meets.
She first bakes the thin sugar cookies, then frosts them.
The frosting has to dry first before she adds eyes to them, packages them and delivers them to the coach — her son, Spencer, the girls cross-country coach — with a note of encouragement to the team.
As the girls team prepares for the state meet Saturday in Terre Haute, they will have the cookies as they have had so many times before.
The reason she bakes the cookies? Simple.
“I just hope it gives the kids some encouragement and that they know someone is cheering them on,” she said.
The “Owl Power Cookie” began simply because she had an owl-shaped cookie cutter for the holidays.
“I had one and I really don’t know how it all started,” she said. “I guess I just thought the team needed some power.”
Power and a side of encouragement.
Each batch of cookies comes with a small notecard taped on the top of the lid.
This weekend, Spencer will pass out the cookies with this meet’s note saying, “Owl Power Cookies SHS Girls’ Cross Country Team for the State Meet! Go! GO!! GOO!!! GOOO!!!!”
That kind of encouragement is needed as sometimes sports like cross-country go under the radar at the expense of more popular sports like football and basketball.
She said those sports have more support because those sports draw crowds outside the athlete’s family and friends.
But it is important to support the other athletics programs too, she said.
“They’re hard workers and it isn’t an easy thing,” she said. “It’s a much smaller crowd and they need to know I’m supporting them whether I’m there or not.”
Most of the time she is there as she can only think of a few away meets that she did not attend this season.
The support does not go unnoticed by the team, either.
Four-year runner Sarah Benefiel said the cookies help put things in perspective and keep her calm before a race.
“Every runner gets those jitters right before a race,” she said. “The cookies kind of remind us that everything is fine and we’re going to do great.”
Benefiel, a senior, said that sometimes there isn’t much to look forward to on a bus ride to a meet, but the cookies are uplifting in a big way.
“I always had something to look forward to boarding the bus before a race,” she said. “They mean a lot to our team and I know every one of us is beyond thankful for them.”
Spencer said his mother has been showing that kind of support for a number of years.
He is a 1989 graduate of Seymour and said it was well known that both his parents were there to support the team.
“Back when I was in high school, my friends knew my parents would be there cheering on everyone equally,” Spencer said, recalling a story of when a girl on the cross-country team called out Joanne as a race began in Bloomington.
“Mom and dad got there a little late and she yelled out to my mom, ‘I didn’t get my hug,’ because my mom would always give her a hug before each race and I think that’s how the cookies did take another meaning because everyone knew my parents were there and would be there to support them and cheer them on.”
Spencer said the team loves the cookies and the support, and it doesn’t take long for Benefiel and the rest of the team to wonder where the cookies are when they get on the bus.
“When I get on the bus they expect to see the owl cookies,” he said. “And if I haven’t passed them out yet, they’ll ask for them and it doesn’t take long.”
Spencer said he is thankful that his mother has been generous enough throughout the years to help his friends, teammates, and athletes and that he enjoys handing them out.
“I know how much time she puts into them,” he said. “She’s not just going and buying cookies at the store, but she is honestly doing it because the support is so important to her.”
Joanne and her husband, Dr. Larry Sunbury, also support other sports at Seymour High School with regular attendance to basketball, football and soccer games.
However, running has been a family affair, and the cookies are just the start.
The family has had 11 runners who have competed.
The latest runners have been Spencer’s daughter Makenna, a freshman, and his niece, Karley, a senior.
One can tell how much support Joanne gives her cross country team by simply looking at the refrigerator in her kitchen.
The appliance is lined with stories and features about players on the team.
“We cut out anything about the team and put it up on the fridge,” she said. “After awhile we will take them down and I will put them in a folder in a drawer.”
The cookies sat on the kitchen counter, packaged and ready to go. When the girls get ready to compete on Saturday, the cookies will be there.
Just like always.
What: 2016-17 Cross-Country State Championship Meet
Who: Seymour girls cross-country team
Where: LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course,Terre Haute, IN
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.