By Mike Deak
ELKHART and NORTH MANCHESTER – After a week of running conference championships, cross country will head into the state tournament series with sectionals this Saturday.
IFN area teams will head in two different directions. Warsaw and Valley heading to Manchester to take on the field while Wawasee and NorthWood will join the fray at the Elkhart sectional.
Warsaw comes into the weekend at Manchester as the favorite in both the boys and girls races. Both were sectional champions a year ago, the Lady Tigers virtually the same team from last year plus new ace Joey Rastrelli. The Tiger boys have a rebuilt lineup, but still were among the contenders in the Northern Lakes Conference among a pair of state-ranked teams from Goshen and Northridge.
Looking at the Lady Tigers, Rastrelli has been a force in her first year of high school cross country. The sophomore, who also doubles with the Warsaw girls soccer team, was the top runner in the NLC, winning last Saturday’s championship race at 19:08. Wini Barnett, last year’s ace, has been right up with Rastrelli and an emergence of Mikayla Mimnaugh, who scored key points to help Warsaw to the NLC tournament title and a split of the hardware with Northridge, gives Warsaw three at the top of the list.
Regan Brouwer, Ava Knight, Elizabeth Vander Bie and Amanda Lusinde are all battle tested in the postseason, and give Warsaw an abundance of firepower all over the course.
Can Culver Academy replicate the magic it had in a pair of epic battles with Warsaw in the sectional and regional tournaments last fall? The Academy is short superstar Lexie Allen, who finished eighth at the IHSAA State Finals, but always seems to have elite races up its sleeves in the state tournament.
Rochester comes in as another contender after winning the Three Rivers Conference championship, led by Madilyn Calloway, the TRC runner-up.
Tippecanoe Valley and Triton are also in the field. Valley has run shorthanded all season, but does have a headliner in Chesnee Miller, who is a top-10 runner in the conference and should compete for an individual ticket to the regional. Triton also has an ace in Jocelynn Faulkner, who like Miller, should compete for a ticket to the next round.
The Warsaw boys lost its top three from a year ago, but still bring in one of the top lineups to Manchester. The trio of Luke Nier, Garrett Hall and Harrison Phipps have all led the team at different points in the season, and Warsaw holds one major eye-opener, taking runner-up in the AAA division of the New Prairie mega event in mid-September.
The combination of the Tiger trio at the top, plus Tyler Swartz, Ryun Hoffert, Nate Knecht and either Alex Schrock or Andrew Potter give the team a real shot and making a deep run in the tournament series.
Rochester, Manchester and Culver Academy likely give Warsaw its best runs for the money. Raven King of Manchester and Peyton Hiatt of Rochester could be two individuals pushing for top honors in the meet. Valley and Triton will both have trouble moving runners along, but all start at the same gun at 10 a.m.
Meanwhile, back at Ox Bow for another sectional setting among the turning leaves on the banks of the Elkhart River, NorthWood and Wawasee will be chasing top five team spots in both mediums.
The Panthers should be OK in the boys race, finishing just a couple spots short of Warsaw at the NLC last weekend. With the return to form by Brady Hunsberger, and mixed with Jordan Burden, the Panthers have the front-end talent to keep moving. Owen Allen, Cole Davies and Bereket Bennett have all improved over the course of the season.
NorthWood won’t likely catch Goshen or Northridge in the team ladder, or its frontline individuals, but should keep its name above the line.
Wawasee, on the other hand, had a tough weekend at Ox Bow and finished last at the NLC. Camden Powell was the top performer for the Warriors, but will have work to do to move up the ladder to get a regional look.
The Lady Panthers placed third at the NLC, which bodes well in prep for this weekend with Warsaw moving down to Manchester. Kaitlin Burden has ran with the front third of the racers this season, and is looking to replicate her success from a season ago. Her 20:32 at the NLC was 15th overall, but pulling out seven Warsaw times, as one from Mishawaka, and Burden should still be running through dew at the finish line. Emilie Allen, MacKenzie Brewer, Emma Davidhizer and Sydney Prenkert create the top five for the Lady Panthers.
The Lady Warriors will need to make up some time, but have a shot at grabbing fifth place and a regional slot. Lily Tyler and Jasmine Hernandez have led the team in recent weeks, with Trinity LaJoice emerging as a solid No. 3. But Doug Slabaugh’s iron five will need Mariah Hurst and Jordan Gibbs to have big days as it doesn’t have any depth remaining to make up for a bad race. Wawasee will slug it out with Concord, Goshen and Fairfield for the final two spots behind Northridge, NorthWood and Elkhart if all plays as expected.