In an ironic twist of fate, Carroll’s senior cross country runners prepare for their final race with absolutely zero pressure. That’s right: no pressure to win. After winning four straight Northeast Hoosier Conference, Northrop Sectional, West Noble Regional and New Haven Semi-state titles, there are no thoughts of winning Saturday’s IHSAA State Championship.
The Lady Chargers come to the state finals undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the state. In most years, a team this solid would have a legitimate chance at winning the state title. Not this year. Standing in the way is Carmel, ranked No. 1 nationally by Marc Bloom/Running Times. Ranked second in the state and 20th in the country is West Lafayette.
Instead of feeling the pressure, for once the Lady Chargers are relishing the role of underdogs.
“Carmel and West Lafayette are two of the best teams in the country,” said Carroll coach Zach Raber. “We’ve got nothing to lose, so we’re going out there and running like it’s business as usual. We just want to run well.”
Asked about the possibility of winning, Carroll senior Amy Poynter said, “I’m not saying it won’t happen. (Carmel) has all the pressure now; there is no pressure on us.”
Running with no pressure is a refreshing change for a quintet of seniors who arrived at Carroll with a tradition to uphold. At that time, Carroll had won nine straight sectionals and eight straight regionals. Conference titles were also a matter of habit as were running in the state meet. But this group would be different. There were no superstars among them, no single runner able to follow in the individual all-state footsteps after names like Kempf, Blanchard, Ginther, McClanahan and Johnson.
Star power would come in the form of a pack. A group of interchangeable names: Olivia Hippensteel, Amy Poynter, Madison Stenger, Melanie Ruich and Alexis Norris. Heading into their fourth and final state meet, there isn’t one all-state cross country runner among them. But there are four of everything else: NHC, sectional, regional and semi-state titles. The last of which none of the superstars was able to do.
“We have a hodge-podge of girls that collectively make a great cross country team,” Raber said. “We have girls (more suited for) the 800 and we have a few who probably won’t be the best until they run much longer distances in college. I don’t think there is a single 5K runner among them. But what they are, are runners who know how to win.”
Along with all the titles, the Carroll seniors can conclude their careers with a third trip to “the podium”, meaning a top five finish at the state meet. Only a rash of injuries last year kept Carroll from a top five finish; they finished seventh, only four points from fifth. (As freshmen and sophomores, the Carroll seniors finished fifth.)
A lack of depth may have hurt the Lady Chargers last year, but it won’t happen again: 10 runners, all under 19 minutes and 30 seconds for five kilometers, were vying for a top 7 spot.
“We’re interchangeable,” Raber said. “We have 10 runners who can all run great. Unfortunately, we have to pick seven. So the goal is to put all seven in the top 50 Saturday and see where that places us.”
Stenger has more aggressive goals. Without an all-state cross country runner on the team, she hopes there are four on Saturday.
“We want to put four girls in the top 25,” Stenger said. “We want everyone to have their best race; it would be a great way to finish our last race together.”
Stenger was then asked about the stress level, the pressure felt for one last race.
“No, we’re all just really excited,” Stenger said. “We are looking forward to running great and then seeing how the younger girls do (in the future).”
Afterall, the pressure’s off now.