WARSAW — Last year, a talented freshman class helped Warsaw’s girls cross country team sneak past some opponents on their way to a berth back to the state finals. But with most of their runners returning from that successful season, there’s no chance anyone is overlooking the Lady Tigers in 2019.
The Indiana Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches have Warsaw’s girls ranked 21st in the state headed into the year, and teams will be gunning for them this fall.
“I don’t think a lot of state-level teams are going to be looking past us now because they know a little bit more about us. We were kind of flying under the radar there with that freshman class that nobody knew much about. But they’re definitely going to know who we are, and they’re going to be looking for us a little more judiciously out on the course,” said head coach Jason Fleming.
“I think they said it was only like a three percent chance of us making it to state, and we just exceeded everyone’s expectations,” recalled Warsaw sophomore Wini Barnett, who paced Warsaw with a 19:13 at state last season. “Now they have us ranked as 20-something, so they already think we’re going to go to state, so that’s awesome.”
If other teams are more aware of Warsaw girls XC after last fall, the Tigers are feeling more confident in their own abilities after their 21st-place finish down at the big meet at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute.
“I think last year it was like ‘Are we going to make it? Are we going to make it?’ It was just a big question mark, but this year we want to make it, and we know we can make it,” said junior Adree Beckham. “But we want to do better than we did last year. We know we can get higher on the rankings.”
“I think it’s just a good mindset that last year we made it to state, and we really have a lot of returning runners from last year. It’s just nice to think we didn’t have a lot of odds going into it, and we made it. It was kind of cool that we can think back to last year, and we can totally do it again,” explained senior Amslie Howett.
If the Tigers are feeling confident in themselves, it’s with very good reason.
The team lost Adree’s older sister Remi and Angie Sanchez-Vijil to graduation in the spring, but the rest of the team’s top five is back. Barnett and Ava Knight return for their sophomore seasons following a strong debut year, and Adree also returns at the top of the lineup. At the start of the 2018 season, Barnett, Adree and Knight were trading places for the top spot in the lineup before Barnett eventually emerged as a clear frontrunner late in the season, then went on to earn a second state berth in the 3200 meters at the end of the track season.
“At the beginning of last year I wasn’t really sure, being a high schooler, what was going to happen, where I was going to go, what places I was going to get. It kind of surprised me,” said Barnett.
“She PR’d down at the state meet — picked a perfect time to run her best. She’s come back this year, she seems focused and is aggressively looking forward. So she’s gotten kind of a taste of what she can do and has progressed to move forward in that respect,” said Fleming of his top runner.
Alongside the aforementioned three are Howett, Mariana Malegon, Amanda Lusinde and another strong incoming freshman class. This year’s squad could be even deeper than last year’s, which is really saying something.
“I think we’re all really confident, and I think some of the sophomores are stepping up, which is good because we don’t have very many seniors or very many juniors up in the front. I think everybody is really stepping up and learning their place and working hard altogether,” Beckham said.
The secret ingredient that made the Lady Tigers so successful last year was a pack approach that saw them running — and placing — in bunches. Fleming and company plan to dance with the one that brought them to state this year as well, and it’s a mentality that should push runners up the line in 2019, too.
“The pack mentality is still what we’re focused on. We’re focused on grabbing the group, moving the group farther up the line. And what we’re seeing early in this season so far is we still have our groups, and our groups are starting to bridge times that are coming further up the line,” Fleming explained. “Our lead group typically was one, two; now three and four are starting to bridge into that gap. Then we have a huge pack of five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 are starting to run in that. It’s moving forward, and we’re just going to continue doing the same thing.”
“The pack mentality, that’s a big one that I think we’re going to nail this year,” Howett said.
“If we run together in workouts, and we know we’re capable of staying together, that just helps us in the race because we know if we ran with them in a workout, then we can do it in a race, too.”