It’s extremely difficult to win a state championship. To win it two years in a row is an incredibly impressive feat. To win it in three consecutive years is almost unheard of in this day and age. So when a school is able to do it four straight years, it is hard to find the words to describe the feat.
That is the level the Festus boys cross country program reached when it easily won the Class 3 State Championship in Jefferson City on Saturday. The Tigers defeated second place Warrensburg by 27 points (55-82) to take home the trophy for the fourth straight time.
“We had the mindset going into state that it was like any other race we have been to before, and that was to win it,” said Jonah Krieg (10) . “This was the meet that we also worked up to all season, and it was our goal to win ever since the guys won last year. We’ve been training for this race ever since. We ran for each other, and for those who came before us to honor them and to continue the winning streak. We never race just for ourselves.”
That unselfish approach is a trademark of the Festus program. And that is why it has been so difficult to vanquish the champions. Five Tigers were all-state runners, finishing in the top 25 individually. And that is why the Tigers are champions. Not because they have the most talented individuals, but because the depth and team-first attitude is tough to beat.
Saturday, the Tigers put that strategy into action. “We wanted to have all our runners in the top 30 at the one mile mark,” head coach Bryant Wright pointed out. “If you are going to be all-state, you need to be in position to do well from the beginning, then move up during the middle of the race, and then gut it out for the last 1000 meters. They did a decent job with executing the plan. They probably did get out a little fast, but I don’t think that affected most of their races. We knew that our biggest competition would be Warrensberg, and we just had to look for them during the race.”
Max McDaniel (11) was a favorite coming in and battled Marquette Wilhite of Warrensburg from the start. Wilhite would pass McDaniel on a hill near the end of the race and would eventually defeat McDaniel for the individual title by four seconds. Max would cross the finish line with a time of 15:46.57. “After the hill, I thought I was going to be able to catch up and regain my lead since the last half mile is the fastest part of my race,” said McDaniel. “I made up some ground, but he was just as fast as me.”
But the Tigers’ depth kicked in after that. Simon Ogle (10) was the second Festus runner in with a time of 17:00.86 which was good for 19th place. “I felt like my race went really well, and I did not expect to be the second runner,” noted Ogle. “I thought I was going to be the seventh runner, so I was just in awe of where I finished. But I could not have done this without my team because, throughout the entire race, my teammates were pushing me forward and helping me.”
Right behind Ogle was Krieg, clocking in at 17:01.28 for a 20th place finish. And then two places later in 22nd, the lone senior on the team, James Ziesmer came in at 17:05.11. “My race went exactly how I thought it was going to go, mainly consisting of a lot of pain,” he said. “I knew for a fact that all of my teammates felt the same pain during the race, but we all embraced that pain, which allowed for us to have those five all-state runners and come away with the fourth straight state title. I am extremely blessed that I was able to be a part of something this amazing.”
One more Tiger took all-state honors. Alec Whitener (11) sped home in 25th place with a time of 17:08.16. “I ran my first mile at 5:14, and I was sitting at 41st place,” he said. “After the first mile, people who took off way too fast began to fall off, and I stayed strong and passed 17 people, and by the time I was at the two mile mark, I was in 24th place.”
Two other Tigers participated in the state meet. Garrett Rhine (10) was 55th, running a time of 17:43.41. “For me, my plan didn’t go as I expected it to, but as a team, our plan was executed amazingly,” Rhine pointed out. “And that’s why this sport counts on everyone in that race. We knew from the beginning that this is not an easy sport, but the rewards that come out of all of the hard work is unbelievable.”
Trenton Childress (11) rounded out the Tigers’ performance, finishing in 123rd with a time of 18:41.01. “My first mile was very good, but around the two mile mark it really hit me,” he commented. “Even though I gave it everything I had, I had my worst race of the year. It’s all in the past because we won. I’m proud of my teammates, and I have next year to prove myself.”
And that proves exactly what Coach Wright has built over the years. Individual accomplishments are secondary to the team’s well being. This year’s squad had only one athlete with state competition experience. Many people thought this would be the year Festus would take a step back. “The young men from last season’s JV squad knew that someone needed to take the place of those that graduated,” Wright remembered. “They had determined in their minds that they would not be the team that would get second place. Even during last track season, I realized these boys were ready to do the training to take a shot at the title. They worked together to become the best. More importantly, they believed in each other and trusted the process. However, nothing takes the place of hard work. That is what they did for a year waiting for their chance to run at the state meet.”
Next year, the Tigers will have the luxury of six of the seven state participants returning. And, as usual, the target will be on their backs. “We know that people want to beat us and even see us fail,” he said. “We have to be ready every time we race. Someone always comes to a race just to beat us. We don’t dwell on this aspect all that much. We would rather focus on everyone giving 100 percent. If we get 100 percent from everyone on that day, we have succeeded.”
Words to live by…and they do. Congratulations to the 2017 Class 3 State Cross Country Champions…the Festus Tigers.
(Thank you to all the cross country parents for the photos from the state competition)