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Written By StaceyPageOnline / Sports on Friday, October 26, 2018

Warsaw’s girls cross country team takes some last-minute instructions from their coaches at their season-opening Tiger Invite back in August. The Lady Tigers have used a team-oriented blueprint to build throughout the season, and their efforts have earned them a place back at the IHSAA Cross Country State Finals this weekend. (File photo by James Costello)

TERRE HAUTE — There’s one more race left to run. The IHSAA Cross CountryState Finals will convene this Saturday at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, and the Lady Tigers will be there.

Warsaw’s girls advanced to this weekend’s cross country finals with a fifth-place result at last Saturday’s New Prairie Semi-State, making the cut with room to spare. It’s the team’s fifth appearance at the big race in the past six years, a span that included four straight appearances between 2013 and 2016. The Lady Tigers’ path to the cross country series finale this fall included sectional and regional championships at the Culver Academies — the team’s eight and sixth straight, respectively — as well as last weekend’s top six finish at New Prairie.

It was the team’s goal from the very beginning to make it back to Terre Haute after missing the cut at semi-state last year. Now, roughly two months later, here they are.

“At the beginning I think that’s everybody’s end goal. I know that they missed last year. Some of the upperclassmen were disappointed that they weren’t able to get out last year, and from the beginning it was ‘This is what we want to do,’” explained head coach Jason Fleming. “We kind of had a ballpark idea of where we needed to be at the end when it really mattered. We kind of set our sights on semi-state was going to be the turning point, and we kind of had a rough estimate at the beginning of the year and as we tracked through the season what times and positions that we’d have to be able to run to be able to do that. That was our focus as we progressed through the season.”

So now that they’ve made their ultimate goal, what’s the next goal for the squad?

Well, the Lady Tigers team that has been underestimated in the polls throughout the season is still being projected as a big underdog headed into Saturday’s finals, and that, they feel, is a mistake. They’d like to break into the top 20 among the 24-team elite field, and they think they have the chops to do it. Besides, they don’t have anything to lose at this point.

“We’ve kind of set a goal of where we want to be this season. I know a lot of the polls, again, don’t give us much of a chance of being anything other than ‘Congratulations you made it to state, and now out of 24 teams you’re going to end up being the 24th team.’ And we’re OK with that. We’ve kind of been in that role all season long, and we’ve kind of grown accustomed to that,” said Fleming.

“We’re able to go out and run a little looser, be a little bit more aggressive. As a team we don’t have anything really to hold back — if we go out hard and we don’t do well, then we haven’t really lost anything.”

Cross country is often considered an individual sport — there are no balls being passed, no plays being run, and there are opportunities throughout the season for individuals to stand out even if their teams aren’t necessarily having success. But those that consider it an individual sport could take a lesson from Warsaw’s girls.

Without a single top 20 finisher at last weekend’s New Prairie Semi-State, the Lady Tigers still punched their ticket to state and did so convincingly. They’ve bought into a team mentality, and runners have pulled each other along throughout the year. As they’ve closed the gaps between themselves, they’ve risen in the standings at the big meets.

“I’m very proud of what these girls have accomplished. We knew going into the season that we didn’t have that runaway runner at the front end, and we knew that we would all have to step up and contribute. They worked tirelessly at pushing each other and keeping that pack moving forward,” Fleming said. “Through work over the course of the season and adjustments and some of our training we were able to really buy into that. The girls really bought into that mentality that this doesn’t necessarily have to be an individual sport; this is a team effort.

“Yes there are individual accolades to be had in a cross country setting, but if you want to focus as a team, then that’s what you have to do — you have to take it as a team and work together as a team.”

While Saturday’s big race represents the program’s fifth appearance at state in the past six seasons, it’s the first under Fleming, who spent the past three years as coach of the Edgewood Middle School girls program. Some of Warsaw’s younger runners remember their time under the first-year Warsaw skipper and already understood his philosophy, but he credits this year’s seniors with overcoming the difficulties of the coaching change and buying into a new blueprint. It’s a recipe that has paid big dividends this fall and one he hopes continues to pay off for future squads.

“I’ve been really excited with a great group of girls and a very supportive athletic department and coaching staff. Decisions have had to be made about how we move forward and how we get in better position,” he said.

“I’ve been really blessed with being allowed this opportunity and have been willing to do my part to add to this team effort. Hopefully down the line as we start to progress and continue this program and this philosophy and this blueprint, hopefully we’ll be having these conversations for years to come.”

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