By Mike Deak
WARSAW – The old cliché, “we’re coming together at just the right time” is often used in sports to bolster a surge by a team to a level it didn’t think it could attain.
That cliché might be the perfect adage for the Warsaw girls cross country team.
Without a prototypical ‘ace’ but a group of seven that has raised each other’s level of performance, the Lady Tigers are preparing to compete at the IHSAA Cross Country State Finals. After missing the state finals in 2019, Warsaw returns to Terre Haute for the second time in three years on a mission to continue to exceed its own expectations, even if those around them already expect it.
“We’ve learned in this postseason that every place really does matter, every position matters,” said Warsaw girls head coach Jason Fleming. “This is the most focused and competitive group of girls I’ve had. They had missions and then set out to achieve them.”
Wini Barnett has been the leader of the team on the course, running third, 10th and 19th in the three levels of the state tournament. While not as ‘dominant’ as she was in her first two years, which included an All-State nod after a 35th place finish at the state finals as a freshman, Barnett is still more than capable of the big moment.
“One nice thing about this season is that I haven’t felt like I had to win races by myself,” Barnett said. “It makes you realize, especially this year, about how much this really is a team sport. You don’t need all the girls to be in the top ten. Having pack runners seems to really bring a team together.”
Warsaw has also enjoyed the exploits of its next three, where Regan Brouwer, Erika Bugg and Ava Knight have shuffled their spots within the scoring table. Brouwer was fifth overall at the sectional, Bugg was a top-20 runner at the sectional and regional and Knight was the No. 2 scorer for the Tigers at the semi-state last weekend.
“We’ve talked as girls about what we can do,” Knight said. “We set some goals. And we wanted to plan out the race and see what’s ahead of us. We know we probably won’t be the top team, but we still feel like we have a shot to do our best.”
Marissa Howett quietly has given Warsaw a fourth/fifth score, going 14th and 24th in the sectional and regional, and the combo of Elizabeth Vander Bie and Adree Beckham have also factored into Warsaw’s advancement. Beckham’s 21:09 at the Manchester sectional saved Warsaw’s hide as a championship sixth-man tiebreaker. And despite a lineage of cross country history, Beckham is only focused on 2020, not living up to past standards, whether in her own home or otherwise.
“I always hold myself to a high standard, and obviously my family has set a bar of standards in the sport, but I kind of want to make a name for myself as the youngest Beckham by leading this team,” Beckham said, the third of three sisters to run at state which included Mia and Remi. Adree and Remi both ran at state in 2018. “I can’t wait to go to state and show what we can do. This team has really come together and that’s what I love about all of this.”
Fleming is bringing his team to Terre Haute without unreal expectations. Knowing the times don’t compete with the likes of a Fort Wayne Carroll, Chesterton or Columbus North, Fleming is hopeful Warsaw can challenge for a top 15 spot, maybe further.
“Realistically, our goal is shooting to place better than when we were there two years ago, which was 21st,” Fleming said. “Our numbers show we can get top 20, well within our reach, if we can string our five up a little bit, we can get to top 15. I think we’d be ecstatic with that. That would show that we went out and everyone did their best.”
The IHSAA Cross Country State Finals begin with the girls race at 11:30 a.m. at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course.