A pre-season ranking places one local high school’s cross country team atop all others in the U.S. WFIU’s Stan Jastrzebski has more on a squad from Columbus North looking to meet its own expectations by exceeding those of others…
Winning a state title can lead quickly to becoming cliché about a team’s success. For instance, you might say you have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat the Columbus North boys cross country team. The thing is…you’d be right. Team members wake before the sun, strap on their Bulldog-blue flashing anklets and are up and running before most of the city.
So if winning a state title brings on the superlatives, what happens when the following season a writer for Runner’s World ranks your team first in the nation?
“I think any time you kind of knock the lid off some expectations, everybody gets a new perspective and what used to be limits are no longer limits,” said coach Rick Weinheimer, who’s coached cross country at Columbus North since 1978, winning four state titles in that time.
“And so, our kids this year have really, really high goals and it’s been nice because our boys have been kind of recognized nationwide for those.”
Why is Columbus North #1?
Weinheimer said the national ranking in Marc Bloom’s publication “The Harrier” came as a pleasant surprise. Bloom, who also writes for the New York Times, has ranked teams nationally for more than two decades, but admits it’s not done by science as much as by what he calls a “sixth sense” for ranking runners. So why Columbus North and not any of the other powerhouse cross country programs across the nation?
“The relatively close 4th place performance in the Midwest regional, behind three national power teams, and with most of that same Columbus North squad back this fall would be the most compelling, if you want to say, ‘statistic’,” Bloom said.
Ranking has different effects
Despite the lofty expectations, the team has thus far lived up to them, easily winning all three weekend meets the team has entered. Again, it would be cliché to call that kind of success a double-edged sword, but it’s clear the ranking and the running can both motivate and intimidate, depending on whom you ask.
“It is always in the back of your mind,” said Brown County High School Assistant coach Danny Webb. “It’s one of those things where we try to focus on each individual, because cross country is individual – you’ve got to do a lot of things yourself – but knowing that you’re hosting such an elite status, it makes you really just feel good about what you do.”
But Columbus North runner Christopher Kelsey chooses to downplay the ranking.
“I mean, it’s nice to see, but we just work hard. We realize that we’re first, so we realize that people are going to be shooting for us, so we just work hard to stay on top,” he said.
Weinheimer said a typical cross country season ramps up in difficulty with each passing week. And, like the races themselves, it’s at least as hard to stay in first place as it is to get there. But the coach said his team is full of front-runners.
“Last year’s team and now this year’s team carrying through have been the strongest groups we’ve ever had that will go to the front of the race and just run hard all the way through,” he said. “Most people don’t like to do that, and you’ll even see professional meets on TV where everybody kind of goes easy for a couple laps and then builds into it. But this is a group that goes right from the gun. And so I think our strategy kind of dictates everybody else.”
The Bulldogs have just five seniors on what Weinheimer says is one of the deepest rosters he’s had, but the squad’s best times have been run by two juniors. Kelsey and fellow 11th grader Andrew Diehn both boast a top-10 time nationally for the fall season. And like his teammate, Diehn says he’s focused more on training well than on the team’s ranking…
“I think every day we’re just trying to go out there and just get better; see what we can do. And as long as we’re doing all the right things, we’ll just see what happens.”
What’s happened so far is that no Columbus North boys varsity runner has finished outside the top 12 in any meet this season – and the team enters seven for every race. In the team’s first meet of the season, the first seven places all went to Bulldog athletes. The runner who finished 8th was another ten seconds back of the Columbus North pack. The team begins its postseason run at a second consecutive state crown with the Conference Indiana championship meet on Oct. 6.