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Last year the St. John s Jesuit cross country team was ranked among the top Division I teams in the state. This year, well, the expectations weren t quite so high.
The Titans graduation losses included Joe Miller, the team s top runner who now competes for Notre Dame, as well as top-seven runners Brett Wagner and Blake Wysocki.
But coach Todd Black saw those holes in his team s lineup not as losses, but as gaps that needed to be filled.
I told the guys that every year we graduate kids, Black said. I told them there were some holes to be filled. We had some guys coming up who could fill the holes.
Every year we graduate guys, but in a good program that presents an opportunity.
And these guys have accepted the challenge.
So far St. John s has done more than just accept the challenge. The Titans, who began the season as an unknown quantity, enter Saturday s regional race at Hedges-Boyer Park in Tiffin ranked as the top Division I team in the state.
Black said the Titans understood why the team received little respect entering the season, since the graduation of Miller as well as twin brothers Chris and Matt Lemon, who now run at Dayton, the year before stripped the squad of three All-Ohio caliber runners.
The Lemons and Miller helped raise the program to a place where it s recognized around the state, Black said. Now these [current] guys have taken the challenge they almost see it as an honor to keep it going.
But I threw that [lack of respect] at our kids. I told them, A lot of people think your program is over because two or three people left. If you guys are going to sit back and let that happen, that s within your control. But you can change things.
And they ve taken that challenge and run with it literally.
The leaders of this year s squad have been seniors Kevin Yarnell and Chris Madaras. Yarnell, who ran second to Miller last year, has taken over the top spot this year while Madaras, a four-year starter, has settled into a spot among the top five runners.
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I think Kevin was excited to become the No. 1 guy on the team, Black said. He had that attitude. He put himself up there and he can run with some of the best kids in Ohio. I think some of his best races are yet to come.
Chris is a vocal leader who is good at pushing the guys and working hard. They ve both taken the attitude that now it s their turn.
Yarnell admitted he was excited, not worried, about replacing Miller as the team s top runner.
I wanted to be one of the top runners at the end of the year, Yarnell said. Last year Joe showed me the ropes and helped me out a lot. He showed me what it s going to take, and now I think I m ready to do what it takes to get this team a state championship.
Yarnell won the City League race with a time of 15:30.57 at Ottawa Park. He won the district race at Pearson Park in 16:14.
Both Yarnell and Madaras said they weren t worried about their younger teammates stepping forward.
We ve been fortunate to have a good undergraduate base, Madaras said. I wasn t worried about our younger guys filling in the gaps. I knew the guys and I ve seen how they ve grown over the past year.
You have to have trust in your program, trust that these guys are going to move up.
The rest of the Titans lineup includes juniors Ben Miller and Preston Benjamin as well as four sophomores: Greg Turissini, Jacob Van Dootingh, Mark Miller and Ian McNair. Ben and Mark Miller are Joe Miller s younger brothers.
Greg had a great track season he just blossomed, Black said of Turissini, who has been St. John s second runner most of the year. He broke the freshman record in the mile, and it belonged to Joe Miller, so you know that was a high standard.
When Ian came in for track season, we got a glimpse of his potential before he broke his foot. Van Dootingh is so talented, his training over the summer and fall has helped him blossom, and Preston Benjamin has really stepped forward recently.
Ben and Mark Miller are both hard-working. You could see Mark working and working as a freshman, and he laid out the miles into the foundation. You can see it all coming together.
Turissini said one reason the underclassmen have stepped forward so successfully is because they recognized and accepted the challenge before them.
There were some big gaps to fill, Turissini said. In the summer we trained pretty hard to fill those gaps so we could be as good as we were last year.
Yarnell said he and Madaras both have tried to provide leadership for those underclassmen.
We have a lot of guys who have stepped up this year, Yarnell said. As seniors, [Chris and I] just trying to have our experience rub off on the younger guys. When we leave, we want them to know how to run this program.
We tried to lead in practices and stretching. And we have a lot of expectations here so we try to let those young guys know what those expectations are.
But even Black said he has been surprised and impressed by the performance of his team, which has included City League and district titles as well as an impressive third-place finish in the Division I-A race at the Tiffin Carnival.
At the start of the year, I thought we could be good, Black said. Earlier in the year [coach Keith Madaras and I] changed the focus of our training, working more on lifting and less on speed work.
In the first meet [at Galion], we came out and ran really well. And we beat some good kids, even though we weren t as sharp as we could be. I think that first race shed some light on how good we could be.
Contact John Wagner at:email@example.com or 419-724-6481.