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Back on the radar: Valparaiso boys win Duneland Conference championship


LIBERTY TOWNSHIP -- Whatever the sport, most coaches don't mind having their team fly under the proverbial radar.

They don't mind being overlooked. It takes off some pressure and can provide a motivational chip.

You just can't do it for very long, or it means you're probably not worth paying attention to anyway.

"Last year, we knew we were going to be young, a little inexperienced, a little immature," Valparaiso boys cross country coach Aaron Crague said. "There was only like one guy who had ever run a varsity race. We knew we were going to be a little thin, especially up top. We were moving guys along during that (prior) track season, then COVID hit and shut us down. I really felt like that put us behind the eight ball in a way. We wanted that time to get those guys ready, but they went five months on their own. You can try to train them virtually, but it's just not the same as your coach being there, motivating you. It was like a trial by fire. They got thrown in there, OK, boys, sink or swim. You've got to figure this out."

After a season on the fringe, the Vikings are back on everybody's screens.

"We took some lumps, kind of came on and showed some promise, then fell a little short of our goal," Crague said. "Our season ended a week sooner than we hoped. When we got back, we challenged the guys, we've got to step up our game, we've got to grow up, improve our training and take it to the next level. A lot of the guys in that race, they accepted that challenge."

With last season's semistate squad intact and a few new pieces sprinkled in, Valparaiso has positioned itself well for a four-week post-season, as evidenced by Saturday's Duneland Athletic Conference championship, where it edged La Porte, 50-55, for the team title.

"We have a lot of guys who just work hard, show up and do what's asked," Crague said. "It's not just us, but we really stress the importance of team, that everybody matters, even down to the seventh guy. We need you in there. You have a role. It's tough out there. There's nowhere to hide. You can't take a play off. The clock doesn't lie. You've got to keep going. We're trying to teach the guys not only to improve their physicality, but improve their mentality, how to compete, how to take some pain, how to work through some low spots you might face out there."

Freshman Mason Nobles (fourth, 16:27.1), Valpo's No. 3 runner typically, led the Vikings at Sunset Hill.

"Talk about an absolute game changer," Crague said. "That's something you can't plan for, to come in and fit in really well. He had some middle school success, but he was battling some injuries and didn't run track. There were even some questions whether he'd do cross country, but his buddies were able to convince him. I'm glad they did. With Jimmy (Dillabaugh) and Joel (Bryant) a little off, he stepped up and really ran well."

Bryant finished sixth, Dillabaugh seventh, Nathaniel Malchow 16th and Nathan Nova 17th as Valpo overcame a 1-2-4 effort by La Porte.

"Malchow ran really well, Nova, those guys stepped up big time," Crague said. "These are some of the unsung heroes. We knew it was going to be close. La Porte's a great team. They're well-coached. (Corbin) Slater's one of the best for sure. Their top three is fantastic. We knew we had to run really well to beat them. We ran pretty well. We had guys pick up for guys who were a little off. That's what you want with a team. There's a lot of good teams. It's going to make for a fun, exciting semistate."

No matter how it shakes out, Valpo is glad to be back in the conversation.

"A lot of guys take pride in coming out here and competing," Crague said. "They know the Valpo tradition. They're not going to do it just because they have green on, but the guys here, they race not only for themselves and their teammates, but we had some alums come back, and they're racing for those guys. They want to keep that tradition going."


Valparaiso's Joel Bryant, left, and Jimmy Dillabaugh finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in Saturday's Duneland Athletic Conference Championship at Sunset Hill Farm County Park. The Vikings topped La Porte, 50-55 for the team title.

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