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Written By StaceyPageOnline / Sports on Saturday, October 20, 2018

Warsaw’s Zeb Hernandez surges at the start of the New Prairie Semi-State Saturday. Hernandez finished 11th overall to earn an individual berth back to the state finals next weekend. (Photos by James Costello)

NEW CARLISLE — It’s been a long road back to state for Warsaw senior Zeb Hernandez. Likewise, Warsaw’s girls program was hoping to make it back after missing the cut last fall. At any rate, both are back.

Hernandez clocked 16:30.1 for 11th place overall and one of the state berths reserved for individuals from non-advancing teams, while the Lady Tigers put up a 180 score for fifth place, making the team cut with room to spare at the New Prairie Semi-State Saturday. They all advance to next weekend’s IHSAA State Finals at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, where racing starts at 1 p.m.

Hernandez first made state as a freshman with the Tigers back in 2015 alongside then-teammate Owen Glogovsky after a 20th place result at the New Prairie meet, then followed up with a runner-up performance at semi-state to punch his ticket back to the finals as a sophomore in 2016. But the Warsaw frontrunner’s junior postseason was derailed by a mid-year suspension, and his senior year began on a less-than-auspicious note when he injured himself early at the season-opening Tiger Invitational back in August. Now, nearly two full months later, Hernandez has earned himself a trip back to Terre Haute in his final high school season.

“I think it’s great that he had that misfortune last year, and he’s come back this year. He’s worked really hard, and I’m glad to see that he’s back on track,” said Warsaw boys coach Jim Mills.

Still, Hernandez said that what he had really hoped for at the close of his senior season was to make the state cut alongside his team. Unfortunately, the Tigers placed 10th Saturday with a score of 237, well back of the top six team cutoff. Valparaiso topped the boys standings with a 100 score followed by Lowell’s 103, while Crown Point finished third with a 116, Highland was fourth with a 141 score, Lafayette Harrison placed fifth with a 145, and West Lafayette scored 155 to secure the last of the team berths at the state meet.

“It’s always a good feeling being able to go to state, but I’m kind of bummed out that the team didn’t go because I was really wanting to make my last year with them. They’ve helped me come a long ways, and I’m grateful for them more than this, I guess,” said Hernandez.

Not helping the Tigers’ cause in New Carlisle was the loss of sophomore Tanner Stiver. Stiver had become a consistent top three finisher for Warsaw but was sidelined in a walking cast at Saturday’s semi-state. Sam Lechlitner placed 25th in a time of 16:51, Jacob Kissling finished 42nd in 17:19, Jack Horoho was 70th in 17:38, and Fernando Niebbia rounded out the team’s top five in 94th place with an 18:12 stop. Harrison Phipps finished 98th in 18:13, and Anthony Bass was 123rd in 19 minutes flat.

“We’re just not good enough right now. We lose our number three runner, and that hurt us, but I don’t know that that would’ve been enough to get us there,” explained Mills. “We’re just a little short right now.”

Particularly painful was the fact that Lechlitner missed the individual state cut — the sophomore’s 25th place finish was just two places shy and only five seconds off of a state berth among individuals from non-advancing teams, the last of which was collected by Portage’s Kyle Gutierrez in 23rd place overall. The good news for Lechlitner and the rest of the Warsaw boys team is that the future looks very bright with the overwhelming majority of the team expected back next season.

“This has been a consistently good, young team that really surpassed more than what I had expected at the start of the season. We’re going to look forward to having those young kids back next year,” said Mills.

“We’ve got five guys in our top seven coming back, and a lot of them are just sophomores and freshmen. It’s something to build on, so I’m not disappointed. I’ll be shocked if we don’t make it out next year with what we’ve got coming back.”

While Hernandez was way out front for his team, the Lady Tigers didn’t have a single top 20 finish at Saturday’s girls race. They didn’t need one, either.

Warsaw’s girls cross country team takes a team pic on the awards stand following Saturday’s semi-state meet. The Lady Tigers finished fifth to earn a team berth back to state.

Freshman Wini Barnett led the team in 23rd place with a 19:56.3 time, while sophomore Adree Beckham finished close behind in 30th place with a 20:03 time, senior sister Remi Beckham placed 36th in 20:15, freshman Ava Knight was 44th in 20:28, and senior Angie Sanchez-Vijil finished 47th in 20:44 to complete the Lady Tigers’ team score. Junior Amslie Howett was 60th but only around 15 seconds behind Sanchez-Vijil in 20:59, and senior Carmen Yoder finished 92nd in 21:43. All told, there was only 47 seconds worth of difference between the team’s top five times and well under two minutes difference between all seven of the Lady Tigers, and that was by season-long design.

“We didn’t have anybody in the top 20, but you don’t necessarily need anybody in the top 20 if you close the gaps between your other runners. That has been our focus all season long — close the gaps between our ones and fives,” explained Warsaw girls coach Jason Fleming. “Early in the season, I looked at some of these other teams and how they were able to accomplish what they were able to accomplish, and it came down to the gaps between the runners. And that’s kind of what we focused on.”

“Since we don’t have that top runner, our mentality through this whole season has just been grouping it up and running with each other and knowing that we can. We practice that a lot through workouts, and I think it’s helped coming into the races knowing that we all worked together in the same workout and that we can all stay together,” echoed Howett.

West Lafayette put three runners in the top 10 and four in the top 20 en route to a dominant 55 score and the team title, while Valpo finished second with a 92 score, Chesterton was third with a 134, Lowell finished fourth with a 143, Warsaw’s 180 was good enough for fifth place, and Crown Point earned the last of the team appointments at state with a 189 score for sixth place. Saturday’s finish felt like vindication for the Lady Tigers, who were overlooked in the preseason polls but now return to state after a ninth-place team finish at New Prairie last fall snapped a string of four consecutive state finals appearances.

“Just kind of recycling back to the beginning of the year, nobody gave us any kind of consideration that we’d even make the cut at semi-state. To do what the kids have done and come so far, I’m just happy for them that they get this opportunity,” said Fleming.

“It really feels comforting as a senior to be able to qualify to state. I know that every single one of the girls that ran today really wanted it, and I know that every single tear shed at the finish line was because we were so worried,” explained Sanchez-Vijil. “Just to be able to have this experience to not even be sixth — not barely make it to state — but to be fifth, to know that we truly belong at state is an amazing and rewarding feeling.”

Manchester’s Halle Briner finishes up her race Saturday.

While Warsaw’s girls punched their ticket back to state, Manchester’s Lady Squires closed out their season in 12th place tin a score of 314 Saturday. Torina Runkel finished 28th in 20:01.9, while and fellow sophomore Halle Briner finished 55th in 20:52, freshman Kambree Cashdollar was 68th in 21:14, senior Jaelyn Webb was 74th in 21:20, and fellow upperclassman katie Barker placed 89th in 21:37. Juniors Maddy Evans and Sydney Diefenbaugh were 116th and 128th, respectively in times of 22:28 and 23:01. Carter Bedke closed his sophomore season in 113th place with a time of 17:59 after advancing alone out of the Culver Academies Regional last weekend. Tippecanoe Valley sophomore Matthew Howes did likewise with a 17:42 stop for 94th place at New Prairie.

Meanwhile, at the New Haven Semi-State in Fort Wayne, several other area runners closed out the year.

Wawasee senior Spencer Hare clocked 16:33 for 25th place at the meet, narrowly missing an individual cut to state, while junior teammate Michael Hammer finished 85th with a 17:15 stop.

“Spencer and Michael both ran strong today. Really proud of their mental and physical effort,” said Wawasee boys coach Chad Hoffert. “Unfortunately, Spencer missed qualifying for state by a few places. New Haven Semi-State is tremendously strong and deep.”

Lady Warriors senior Kenzie Smith capped off her high school career with a 41st-place finish in the girls’ race at New Haven with a time of 20:01. NorthWood senior Whitney Wolfe also closed her prep career with a 139th place finish in 22:05, while fellow Panthers runners Tyler Evers and Sam Schlatter  finished 99th and 136th, respectively, with times of 17:25 and 18:00.4.

The state finals will take place next Saturday in Terre Haute, with the girls’ race slated for 1 p.m., and the boys scheduled to follow at 1:45 p.m.

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