Startin' 'em young: Morgan Township's girls cross country success rooted in middle school program
NEW CARLISLE -- The Cinderella story of last year's semistate, Morgan Township returned to New Prairie with a different demeanor Saturday.
"I would not say it was business as usual, but there was definitely a mentality change within the team, how they carried themselves," Cherokees junior Dana Abbring said. "We were more confident. We are very competitive and always work hard. "
With no more semi=state and all the marbles now on the line at the regional, there was no silver slipper this time; the running spikes served just fine, as Morgan placed third, earning a repeat trip to state.
"There was a little more confidence, but I just told them stay humble and keep working hard all season," coach Joel Davis said. "Workouts, practices, everyone shows up and gives 100 percent. It's not, gee, we're kind of good, maybe we can ease back. There's always somebody ahead of you. There's always another goal, another step to reach, what we want to keep trying to do every season, every race even, just get a little better, keep pushing forward."
While Valpo (45) dominated the meet, Penn, a school of over 3,300 students, edged the Cherokees, with an enrollment over 10 times smaller (236), 102-108.
"We're not one of the gang because we're never going to be that size," Davis said. "We're still going to be a school of 240. It's much harder. You look at all the regionals, there weren't a lot of 1A schools around in any of them. There's not a backup, there's not a list of seven girls who can run the same time as a No. 7 on another team. Isabella (Bryan) also plays soccer. We have to be very cautious, just try to keep them healthy."
Morgan Township placed third in Saturday's New Prairie Regional. It is the only Class A school to qualify for state. (Photo by Ben Bachmann)
Abbring (eighth) and Peyton Bucher (10th) led Morgan.
"I go into every race knowing there are no guarantees and I have to give my very best," Abbring said. "I've been called consistent by a lot of people. I try to keep the same mentality from year to year, race to race, literally anything that happens. It's definitely something I've learned."
Emmy Bland (26th), Bryan (31st) and Audrey Rakowski (50th).
"This is just super fun to know we're going to state," Davis said. "What other 1A school will be there? It's a tribute to these kids, pushing each other, pushing the kids coming up. It's just fantastic."
Now the Cherokees head to Terre Haute looking to be a little more than just a participant.
"We want to compete this year, move up the ladder a little bit," Davis said. "Last year, we were thrilled to be there."
Morgan finished 19th in 2022 and returns everybody who ran.
"We want to do better than last year, prove ourselves," Abbring said. "My freshman year, it was the first year we went to semi-state back when that was a thing. It was like just so great to be there. We didn't care we were 13th. It was the same as state last year. We don't care we were 19th, we got to be here. This year, there's that expectation to be more competitive."
Bland is the only senior in the current group and more reinforcements aren't far away as Morgan won the middle school state championship on the same LaVern Gibson Course, led by Bucher's sister McKenna, a seventh grader, who was fifth, besting the school record previously held by Peyton. Peyton paced MT to the title as an eighth grader in 2021. Other finishers were Clara Meints (69th), Brooke Parsons (71st), Ella Buchko (86th), Anna Muhleman (92nd), Cadence Albers (99th) and Lily Herlitz (106th). The MT boys, coached by Mike Bailey, placed fourth behind Kaleb Fryenberger (18th), Christian Freyenberger (26th), Mattix Hatala (51st), Rowan Hatala (58th), Hudson During (82nd), Blake Higgins (220th) and Rocko Bucher (260th).
"If we're going to have success, we've got to be involved with the middle school kids," said Davis, who has essentially traded places with former girls high school coach and current middle school coach Kellee Hitz. "I still work with them in the winter, summer."
Abbring understands how important it is for the teams to connect.
"More in the winter, throughout track, we get to build those relationships," she said. "We come to their conference championships. We've got a great middle school program."
Morgan Township won the middle school girls cross country state title, while the boys finished fourth. The high school Cherokees placed third in Saturday's regional to qualify for their second straight state meet, to be run on the same Lavern Gibson Championship Course. (Photo provided)