Photos by Bill McAdow of ChampionsIllustrated.com
In most Indiana communities, cross country falls into the “minor” sports classification at the local high school. Now that’s not a mean-spirited label; it’s just that the sport of cross country does not easily slide into the definitions we have placed on being called a “major” sport. Those characteristics are saved mostly saved for football and basketball.
Typically there may only be a couple dozen cross country competitors at a high school, and there is also probably not a well-structured youth program in the cross country feeder systems at a community’s middle schools or youth programs.
But when it comes to categorizing the boys and girls cross country teams at Carmel, there is nothing closely related to being minor. You can pin the word major on these two remarkable teams at the school on Main Street. The facts show that cross country is big time at Carmel. The impressive facts show:
• A staggering 226 Carmel students were on the two teams this season, including a whopping 128 on
the girls’ squad. And the number of runners on both teams is not on a one-year curve. Two years ago, the girls’ team had an enrollment of 136. The boys’ team once had almost 150 competitors before time standards forced annual roster cuts.
• The cross country programs in the Carmel middle schools and Carmel Dad’s Club are brimming with future standouts, and a youth program at Northview Church enlists almost 1,000 runners.
• Winning state championships are not a rare occurrence in either gender classification. After winning both the boys and girls state championships last month in Terre Haute, Carmel has now claimed a breath-taking 28 Indiana titles (15 girls and 13 boys) during a 37-year stretch.
“Cross country is so strong in Carmel,” noted boys coach Doc Bell. “With the youth programs, the middle school programs and the support systems, it is almost easy to coach. There is so much interest in the Carmel school district.”
Not to be forgotten is the Carmel tradition in cross country. Current IUPUI boys cross country and track and field coach Chuck Koeppen laid the foundation during his 37-year tenure at Carmel. Koeppen’s teams won 22 state championships (11 by each squad) and collected 60 sectional, 52 regional and 29 semi-state trophies. The 1987 Lady Greyhounds scored a record low 18 points in the state championships, and Koeppen was named national coach of the year in 1982.
When Koeppen left for IUPUI in 2008, Bell and Mark Ellington were tabbed to replace a legend. Both have attempted and succeeded in retaining Koeppen’s traditions and winning ways.
“When you follow a legend, you work to keep a lot of the traditions,” said Bell, a family doctor on the south side of Indianapolis and a former Carmel and Koeppen rival while running at Southport in the 1970s. “Chuck was an incredible coach, so why change what has worked?”
Ellington, a former coach at Clay Middle School, has adopted the same strategy. “We have a great running community,” said Ellington. “The kids are so engaged in the youth programs. The high school kids help the middle school kids, and the middle school kids help the youth kids. We have a great running community.”
The Carmel system includes having middle school athletes serving as “rabbits” for youths involved with Pup Running programs at Northview and the Carmel Dad’s Club. The rabbits help set the pace at practices. “We want running to be fun,” Ellington said. “No one cares who wins.”
Ellington has not been afraid to carry that philosophy to his Greyhound team. All team members run in early season meets. He retains 25-30 runners in October.
“Cross country is a great, great sport,” said Ellington. “Everyone has the opportunity to achieve something and individually get better. You can personally celebrate when your time gets better by 30 seconds. And you can be happy for your friends when they run well. There is a great culture here in Carmel.”
Team success is also a big part of the Carmel brand. The Greyhounds have pocketed four consecutive state championships, though Ellington admits his team “didn’t quite nail it” at Terre Haute this fall.
“We celebrated, but we all felt we missed an opportunity to do better,” said Ellington, whose team outdistanced runner-up Hamilton Southeastern by 46 points by finishing with 76 points. Senior Kelcy Welcy captured individual honors with a time of 17:53 on the five kilometer course, while two other seniors, Gina Genco and Rachael Wessner, finished 34 and 51.
There is no such thing as rebuilding at Carmel, only reloading. The 2014 Greyhounds will return junior twins Haley and Kelsey Harris, who finished 14 and 17 in the state meet, and two sophomore state entries Stacy Morozov and Megan Kress.
“And we have a whole lot more waiting in the wings,” warned Ellington. “There’s no doubt we will
have the talent and commitment [for a fifth straight state title].”
As will probably Bell’s boys’ team which came in with a 14-point victory over runner-up Columbus North in the state finals. “We have a good foundation,” assessed Bell, who must replace seniors Bobby Browning (seventh in the state), Ben Anderson (13th), Daniel Schuga (29th), Josh Horowitz (32nd) and Michael George (55th). “We have three sophomores who are as good as anyone in the state, and we have a fantastic group of freshmen.”
Heading the sophomore corps is Ben Veatch who overcame a rash of injuries to finish fifth in the state competition with a time of 15:44. “He has a great future left,” said Bell, whose sophomore crew also includes Zach Leiheiser, the team’s most improved runner, and nationally ranked cyclist Thomas Revard.
But before closing the book on 2013, both the boys and girls teams qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals this month in Portland, Oregon. The event serves as the unofficial national high school cross country championship. Seven runners and the coach of each team will be flown to Portland by Nike.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” conceded Bell, whose team finished 11th in 2012. “We didn’t run our best last year, but we feel we can be up there this year.”
Ellington has even higher goals for his Oregon bound squad. The Greyhounds have risen from seventh to fifth to third in the last three meets. “We hope that progression continues,” he noted.
And if not this year, there is always next year in cross country at Carmel, for both the boys and girls.