Deep in the hills and woods of Logan county, there is a venue for recreation that has allowed West Liberty Salem cross country to take residence. In its now fifty years of serving as training grounds and their home site the gracias caretakers have seen five state titles captured by the Tigers. If this weekend was any indication as to what could happen this year, they should prepare the number cards and paint once more.
I spoke with the West Liberty Salem coaches and selected speaking athletes on Wednesday of last week in a hopes to create a preview video interview, technology got the better of me and the sound did not work. Through extensive lip reading I can tell you what the Tigers had to say as they prepared to host nearly 20 teams on their home course.
I asked Coach Ann Vogel (girls head coach), Mike Loudon (Boys head coach), and their selected speakers Owen Harrison and Michael Jones for the boys and Addison McAuley and Ashley Yoder for the girls' questions regarding how they felt about hosting a home meet and how the season has been building.
The girls responded to the nature of hosting a home meet how comfortable they are with it given that it is a course they run as part of practice and across their years with the tigers nearly countless times, this confidence manifested itself in the girls being so bold as to say they were hoping to have a perfect score as a team.
A wonderful goal to strive for when you have the horses in the stable to achieve it and refreshing to see coach Vogel's girls being so open and honest about striving for big goals, something that coach Vogel works to impress on her athletes. They were not however so brazen as to feel unstoppable, they girls when asked if they could add anyone else to the meet immediately mentioned Colonel Crawford citing a poor showing against them in the outset of the season and hoping for chances at redemption.
The boys of West Liberty spoke on the advantage of home course as well but I asked them additionally how the change to Division III was suiting them. Owen and Michael responded that they were excited about it and had been watching results from DIII for some time and as a result felt comfortable in knowing who is good and what team they needed to be working to be ahead of.
One such team is the perennial power of Columbus Grove who made the trip down from Putnam County to race against the best on some hills not found in most of the Northwest. For the Tigers though the focus was on clarity as both coach Loudon and the team members speaking echoed each other that above all they need to iron out who feel where in the 3rd through 7th spots.
The day of the meet brought a cool crisp to the air and the sunlight that sprang through the trees offered pockets of radiated heat; the governor made an appearance to watch his seemingly endless line of cross country runners located in the Western towns of the state; and the senior parents ready a celebration for those who had worked so hard for so long to reach the success that the programs enjoy.
As the gun went off for the girls race the checkered orange of West Liberty Salem quickly worked its way to the front of the pack. Pushed by Cheyan Sundell-Turner of Yellow Springs, Georgia Bates of Benjamin Logan, and Sarah Kamphaus of Columbus Grove a pack of tigers including Ashley Yoder, Malia Miller, Addison McAuley, and Breece Gullett were able to work together and "pack up" as they had a spread of only twenty-seven seconds.
All through the course this message was carried to the checkered orange ladies as coach Vogel was clearly heard saying, "get up with her, she needs a friend, work together and get it done girls!" While it wasn't a perfect score the girls were very happy with their race can be seen in the interview they were kind enough to give.
In the boy's race there was far more fireworks to be had. We knew this though as the Tigers of West Liberty Salem and Bulldogs of Columbus Grove are both highly ranked and regarded for team prospects come the postseason. The race was held tight for much of it but by the start of the second mile the hills had worn down the packs and were setting us up for a significant finish in the final 500 meters which rises an elevation of at least one hundred feet from the valley floor to the hills peak where the finish line was situated.
In the first groups it was a Tiger beating a challenger up the hill as sophomore Asher Knox one the race being closely challenged by Upper Scioto Valley senior Joe Parker. The battle for third saw West Liberty Salem's Owen Harrison edge out Caleb Baggett, junior from Springfield ECA, showing the strength he tigers have with elevation changes.
The formidable Bulldogs top duo finished in 6th with Luke Ellerbrock and 7th with Trent Koch to make it appear to be anyone race for the team title. As I stood on this hill watching for who would turn up the hill next it was overwhelmingly a home team affair of the next sixteen runners who would turn to make the rise to the finish, ten of them were wearing the branding of "Big Orange" across their chest, the depth Coach Loudon spoke of was manifesting before all of our eyes.
In fairness in that same collection plus one more spot was the entirety of the five scorers for Columbus Grove, but it was clear the Tigers would be taking the team title. In speaking with the boys of West Liberty Salem they offered some gems in terms of how they felt about the race and where they see their team going as clarity works to open their eyes for the second half of the season.
The enjoyable day was capped with the Junior High teams of West Liberty winning on the boy's side and finishing runner up on the girls to Cedarville on a tie breaker. At the end we are left with a thought of how great it is that we live in a state with such talent, and diversity of topography to see different styles of races. For anyone with eyes though we came away thinking how scary this team can be once the hills flatten out and their times start to match the rest of the state.