By Mike Deak
WARSAW – For this group of Warsaw boys cross country runners, it’s been a disappointing road of sorts in recent years. While there have been championships along the way, one thing has been lacking.
It’s time to level up.
Warsaw is making its first team state finals appearance since a three-year run from 2011-13, Warsaw peaking at fourth in 2012 on a remarkable set of runs from Jacob Poyner, Ellis Coon and Robert Murphy. This year’s team doesn’t have the dynamic set of frontrunners like the 2012 team, but it does have a formula that works in team competitions: a pack.
“This will be the third runner-up semi-state team the school has ever had, and really, talent-wise, when you match us up with the 2012 team, they aren’t even close,” Mills said. “Back then, we had three 15-minute runners. So this is a whole different team, but they managed to put it together, and doing it at the right time.”
While Jacob Kissling has been the leader in terms of overall times this season, including a sectional championship time of 16:28, he hasn’t been the ace of the staff every time out. Tanner Stiver was second overall at the Logansport Regional in a major return from a hamstring injury that had him nearly hobbling off the end line at the Northern Lakes Conference Championships at the beginning of October.
“The NLC race was my first race back in a month, so I wasn’t as used to running as the other guys,” Stiver said. “Up to the regional, I had a couple races under my belt and really my hamstring felt fine.”
Added Kissling about the semi-state round as opposed to the sectional and regional, “There was a different mindset for us and a much more competitive race. I needed to set some goals and work towards them to score as few points as I could for the team.”
Harrison Phipps and Sam Lechlitner have stepped forward as super reliable scorers for the Tigers. Phipps ran fourth, 10th and 27th at the three stages of the state tournament while Lechlitner was fifth, seventh and 19th. Garrett Hall has also been right there for the Tigers, posting top-15s in the sectional and regional.
“We just have to come in and realize that we’ve put in a lot of work, and for me, each weekend of the tournament could be my last,” said Lechlitner, a senior. “Now that I know that this will be my last high school cross country race, this is where we want to be.”
Luke Nier, Sam Slough and Ian Denzer have all ran varsity races for the Tigers in the state tournament.
“I think we had to get into the right mindset at the semi-state, and realize that all of the meets we’ve had, it would be the most important of the season,” Phipps said. “We had to realize how much we’ve been working and for how long and put that into practice. Get in the mindset of how hard we’ve been working and we deserve to be here.”
Longtime Warsaw head coach Jim Mills has been upbeat about this group, particularly this week in prep for the state finals. Sharing several stories about some of his recent teams, then how those translated to this group, Mills was encouraged by his team’s runner-up finish at the New Prairie Semi-state, and that it could top Crown Point by a point, a team that was a last-minute drop out of the Warsaw Invite, which Mills was really interested in seeing in person.
“I couldn’t tell you who the number one rated team is in the state, I don’t care,” quipped Mills. “All that matters is what our guys do. We don’t talk in practice about other teams. About the only team we talked about was Crown Point, because they snubbed us at the Tiger Invite and didn’t show up. After going through a whole track season without competing and all summer, right off the bat we wanted to race Crown Point at our place, we know they are a top ten team. They call us a few days before and said they’re not coming. That may or may not have motivated us a little at the semi-state. And I’ll tell ya, it was nice to beat them by a point.”
Much like the Warsaw girls, the boys don’t expect to be cracking the top eight of the team standings, at least per Mills’ factoring, but a top 15 is within reach. Of the 24 teams racing this weekend, just four are unranked in the final IATCCC poll, Warsaw one of them along with Jasper, Western and Munster. Warsaw, Western and Munster all emerged from the New Prairie Semi-state.
The IHSAA Cross Country State Finals begin with the girls race at 11:30 a.m. at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course.