LIBERTY TOWNSHIP -- With each passing Saturday, Morgan Township continues to turn heads.
"As I was running by some person, I heard them say, you've got to get up with that Morgan girl, we need the points," Cherokees sophomore Dana Abbring said after Saturday's Chesterton Regional. "Just to have a target on my back, I've never had that before. It's kind of cool to be famous almost. It was unexpected to me."
The unexpected is becoming the expected in cross country meets, where the Class A school that has dominated the Porter County Conference for the last decade has expanded its footprint, as evidenced by a runner-up finish behind Valparaiso in the regional.
"It's fun to hear people whispering, oh, how's Morgan this far ahead of everybody?" freshman Peyton Bucher said.
The Cherokees' emergence has been several years in the making. Current head coach Joel Davis has been at Morgan for a decade, starting out as the middle school coach before moving up to the high school.
"I came in and started trying to build for the high school, then coaches kept leaving and I just hung around," Davis said. "I'd try to start doing some things so they'd have a sense of what hasn't been done at Morgan. I remember when I sat down with the very first kid who was a pretty good runner, Kiersten Duzan. I said something about running a specific time and she kind of looked at me and said, I don't know what that means. I had to figure out some way to show them, here's a good time, here's what we're shooting for, and school records were a thing they could see. I would use that as the carrot. Now there's bigger things."
Morgan Township's Peyton Bucher finished third in Saturday's Chesterton Regional, leading the Cherokees to a second-place finish.
There sure is.
In 2018, Morgan won its first sectional. The following year, Peyton Bucher, whose mom Kelly (Allison) ran for Chesterton when it finished fourth in the state in 2001, was a sixth grader.
"We were at an indoor meet in Fort Wayne," Davis recalled. "There were two girls in the race who were at least a head taller. She gets done running, she's crying. I'm like, Peyton, what's wrong? She goes, coach, I lost. I told her those two girls are from Carroll. Their school won state last year. I could see her competitiveness at that point in time."
Last year, the Cherokees took the Rensselaer Sectional title again and Bucher, an eighth grader, led the middle school team to the small school division state championship.
"I think somebody just kind of had to arrange it, push them forward," Davis said. "The kids have just worked their tails off. It's taken a number of years to get them to buy into the fact that if you work hard, you can compete with anybody. It doesn't have to be just PCC schools. We just keep building. That's a lot of fun to watch, to be a part of. When the alums come back to support, it's great. It's kids they don't even know. I'll get a text, hey coach, great job. I'll go, I didn't run at all."
This fall, as a freshman, Bucher paced Morgan to a sectional repeat.
"Peyton's been helped a lot by Emerson (Bland)," Davis said. "She's more experienced. She's helped get her ready for this. You never have to worry about the highs and lows with Dana. She's a steady force. I always know she's going to be where she's going to be. All season long, they're getting better."
Like most good PCC teams, the regional has typically been the end of the line for Morgan's girls. They cleared the hurdle by qualifying for their first semistate last year and the addition of Bucher to the lead group of Abbring and Bland pushed the program to another level.
"It's pretty fun," Bucher said. "We have a really awesome, encouraging team and coach."
Only one other PCC girls team (Hebron, 2012) has ever finished as high as second in a regional and that came at the Crown Point site, which isn't historically as deep as the Porter-La Porte county regional.
"It's just so cool to see how this season's playing out," Abbring said. "I would've never thought about that last year. It was just, can we get through? I was excited when we placed fourth, that we didn't just slide in. The expectation to be second or maybe even win this is just crazy. We were definitely put on the map this year."
Davis sensed there was something special cooking, so he got the team in the Brown County Eagle Classic, and entered them in the Elite Division no less.
"I try to get a schedule based on who I have coming back and who I have coming," he said. "Our schedule was a little lighter. That's one of the best races in the state. I didn't want them to be scared when they get here or next week. They're going to be nervous, but there's a difference between nervous and scared. I don't want them thinking, we can't compete with these folks. In other divisions, we would have won. You maybe lose a trophy, but you get tenth, you're going to lose nine of the top 15 teams in the state. A lot of the other coaches were congratulating them. They're also going, what size is your school?"
Last month, Morgan ran in the AAA (big school) race and took fifth, showing the balance of northern Indiana that they weren't your typical small school cross country story.
"We're pushing toward the Valpo runners to catch up to them and help our place," Bland said. "Coach put us in that race to give us an opportunity to get the experience of running with bigger schools. That was amazing, just to improve, to show them who we are. "
Valpo coach John Arredondo already knew.
"I've been telling everybody since summer time," he said. "They're really good. Hats off to them. They just have to stay healthy."
La Porte coach Corbin Slater also noticed.
"We knew Morgan was going to show out pretty good, but not that good," he said. "They ran incredible. That was awesome to see them. You can try to compare times, but you just don't know with that other sectional."
Depth is typically an issue for a school Morgan's size, but with three girls in the top eight -- Bucher was third, Bland fourth and Abbring eighth -- and five in the top 22, the Cherokees held up just fine in besting Portage, Chesterton and La Porte, scoring 56 points, just 15 behind Valpo.
"What I found was, if I wanted to keep them coming, I had to work with them all the time," Davis said. "I always have the middle school kids in the winter running. Most of the boys, I coached in middle school. I coached the distance in track. Vanessa (Parsons) plays volleyball and Isabella (Bryan) plays soccer. It's a small school deal. They don't let up because they've had a practice."
Bland and Megan Beaver are the only juniors in a senior-less top seven.
"It's a very young strong team," Bland said. "I love to encourage them. It's fun to be a part of it. It was amazing to see what they were capable of, what we are capable of."
With over 30 kids in the middle school program and Bucher's cousin Shae among next year's freshmen, it looks like Morgan isn't going anywhere any time soon.
"I would love to get to state," Davis said. "It's never happened. The boys made it last year for the first time. Like I've said to the kids all year, you've got to show up and run the races. I'm excited for next week and the hope for a week after."
Should Morgan make it out of the New Prairie Semistate, they may not even need a bus to get back to school. They can float home.
"To have that my freshman year, to make all of that history, now my sophomore year, hopefully making even more history, it's crazy," Abbring said. "We're a 1A school. We're small but mighty."
Dana Abbring of Morgan Township, left, finished eighth in Saturday's Chesterton Regional.