To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “90 percent of the race is half mental.”
Whether running cross country is 90 percent mental or only 50 percent, the Carroll boy's cross country team is well-equipped for Saturday's IHSAA State Championship.
The Chargers come into the meet ranked No. 1 in the statewide coach's poll and are the only undefeated team in the state. But these two facts only begin to tell their story of confidence. There is also coaching, experience and success in pressure situations. Perhaps coaching should be at the top of the list.
“We want it to be business as usual Saturday,” said Carroll coach Zach Raber. “We don't need five 30-second personal bests. We just need seven solid races, just like we've had most of the time (this season). If we run well, we win the state championship.”
To put a state championship in perspective, the only time an Allen County school has won the boy's IHSAA championship was North Side in 1968. The only other northeast Indiana school to win a state title was Ashley in 1963.
Raber has coached the Carroll girl's team to the IHSAA finals in each of his 10 years at the school. The Lady Chargers have won sectionals and regionals in all 10 of those seasons and the last 4 semi-states as well. Under Raber the boy's program will be going to state for the fifth time and finished second in 2008. But his influence on the team was heightened after last Saturday's New Haven Semi-state. Despite a 70 point win over runner-up Homestead, it was a struggle. Yet Raber's runners are even more confident.
“We had a rough day,” said senior Eric Claxton. “All of us, about half-way through the race, just lost our legs.”
Said fellow senior Jon Harper: “We were all pretty down but then we got back to the tent and Raber explained to us what happened.?
So, what happened?
“We did a really tough workout on Wednesday, 10 days out from the state meet,” Raber said. “I knew they wouldn't feel very good on Saturday, but I didn't tell them. Almost every runner and every team (at semi-state) trained for this day, but we have the luxury of training for the state meet. I told them in the tent, after the race, that I'd give them back their legs this week. We'll be fine.”
Telling a high school athlete a story is one thing, but when there is history behind it, there is a difference.
“We had the same thing happen to us in track,” Claxton said of the 3,200-meter relay at this past spring's IHSAA Wayne Regional. “It was a pretty bad day. But then the next week? It was all worth it.”
The next week was when Claxton, Harper and current senior Alex Hess combined to win the state championship in that event, running the second-fastest time in state meet history. It's a confidence that Raber is relying on.
“He told us at the start line at semi-state, hey, we have three state champions in our line-up. No one else here can say that,” Claxton said.
Those three are joined by another senior, Kyle Gater, who will be running in his third straight state cross country finals (like Harper and Hess). After a mid-season injury, Gater has stepped into a leadership role and placed ninth at the West Noble Regional and eighth at the New Haven Semi-state. The quartet of seniors provides a solid front-pack that should be unmatched on Saturday. But it is behind these four that Raber thinks will put the Chargers over the top.
“I'm more confortable with our 5-6-7 runners than I've ever been,” Raber said. “All the top teams have a solid front pack, but those guys up front know we have three more right behind them. It takes a lot of pressure off.”
“We're ready to run well,” Harper said. “Raber has us ready.”