Saturday will mark a new era for the Marietta High School girls and boys cross-country teams, as the Tiger runners will be competing for the first time in the East Central Ohio League meet at Cambridge.
The anticipation for both teams has been building during training as they move closer and closer to the date.
When talking to any of the runners about the upcoming race, one gets many different answers. However, one phrase resonates with all of them: pack running. For the Tigers, these two simple words will make all the difference.
"Throughout the season we have individually raced well and competitively," said junior Mitchell Grose. "Now we know what strategies we need to use to run our best."
Of course, Grose is referring to the racing strategy of pack running. And for the other runners, this means everything to them, as well.
"With a small race like this, it will be the teams with the biggest packs toward the front that do the best," said senior Sam Garrison. "We have been quite successful this year with two tight packs. Hopefully everyone will be able to run a good race and keep the packs together."
For the Lady Tigers, the story is no different.
"We just really need to focus on pack running, but most importantly, on keeping our packs up in front," said junior Julie Fobes.
MHS head coach Dale Leeper was in total agreement.
"The boys team has embraced the concept of the team upon which the philosophy and approach to cross-country is built," Leeper said. "The girls are getting closer, as they have shown an understanding of the goal and the key to executing the strategy: pack running.
"So what accounts for the boys' team strength? Having a solid base of seniors is the key to that development, I believe."
Expect seniors' Garrison and Alex Wesel to complete the Tiger's first pack with Grose, and be leading the way for the boys' close second pack.
As Marietta has seen earlier this season, the team is not complete without the tie-breaking help from the sixth runner.
This undertaking can be found in senior Nathan Diehl, as he has proved in a previous meet at Lancaster.
Completing the senior leadership and adding depth on the boys' side for Marietta will be Ben Bricker and Sophus Joergensen.
Logistically, the Tiger boys must move their second pack of their fourth through sixth runners closer to the pack of their first through third runners.
From the performances MHS has seen from them so far this season, that goal is right within their reach.
"We have really pulled together as a team throughout the season. We have learned how to race with each other and how to help each other out. It is easier when you run together and encourage your teammates," said Garrison.
For the Lady Tigers, they also need a front pack with a second following closely behind. Once again, they have been training this season with exactly that outcome in mind.
"The pack running our team is known for is really going to help us do our best in this race," said junior Erica Dawson.
The girls have a strong front pack in Dawson, Fobes, and senior Abby Ketelsen. Adding strength to the team are first-time runners' sophomore Bekah Vann and freshman Brittany Deskins.
Don't be surprised to see them right behind the first pack to complete Marietta's top scoring five runners.
To observers, a cross-country race might seem elemental: simply run five kilometers.
To the runners and coaches, there is a mental component that plays a role, as well. The runners must peak at the right time in the season to guarantee their best race where it is needed most.
"We are tapering very carefully and gradually right now," Leeper said. "We are very close to where we need to be. Both teams have done well in some very strong fields, but neither has had its best race yet. That is as it should be."
While it can be expected that the Marietta boys and girls will bring their very best to the ECOL meet, so will all of the other teams. Completing the competition in the ECOL meet will be Cambridge, Zanesville, River View, Claymont, Coshocton, New Philadelphia, Dover, and Meadowbrook.
It would be easy to compile race results and average times for each teams' runners so far this season and create a mock ECOL race on paper.
Yet if that is done, no real race would be needed and the winners could already be declared. However, that would not be in the spirit of cross country, where anything can happen.
"Cross country runners don't race on paper, they race on dirt," Leeper said, jokingly.
This is where the real race begins.
"As a coach, you have to count on a surprise performance out of a team that you did not expect to be at the top," Leeper continued. "This is something that always happens. Some teams peak for the league meet, sacrificing a tournament effort if they believe that they are destined to end the season early. A team like that can be very dangerous. This is what I am concerned with on the boys' side."
For the Marietta girls, team performances to watch out for will come from Claymont and Dover, both of which expect to advance to the state meet this season.
"These teams are talented and deep, with programs that have a long tradition in cross. Both will present challenges for us," Leeper said.
Overall, the Tigers are excited about the new competition.
"It is always interesting to have new competition," Garrison said. "We can't go into the race with any clue what the outcome will be because we have only raced against a few of these teams."
"I am really excited about the new competition and the new league. It gives us a chance to show what we are made of and who we are," added Dawson.
Not much is known about the Cambridge course, as Marietta has never raced on it before. Looking at results of other races held there this season, times appear to be fast. Even with some rolling hills sneaking in, this will play to Marietta's advantage.
The Tigers have been working their hardest, with the league meet on their minds during every practice.
"Both teams need to have the confidence in their training that comes with success past," Leeper said.
"They have made big investments, and they need to think about that and the expected return."
"It's going to take a good and competitive race from the whole team," Grose said.
"Our team has performed very well throughout the season and I think we are all mentally and physically prepared for Saturday," added Fobes.
Dawson summed up both teams' feelings, "I think we all want Marietta to be remembered when we leave the meet."
The coaches couldn't have agreed more.
Racing for the girls will be Kelsey Adkins, Amelia Cain, Sofie Christensen, Dawson, Deskins, Fobes, Alexa Fouss, Lizzie Frazier, Ketelsen, Emma Martin, Megan McIntosh, Alle Moore, Amanda Schnur, Taylor Smith, Sarah Studenic, Vann, and Annie Weaver.
Racing for the boys will be Bricker, Diehl, Garrison, Grose, Jake Haught, Joergensen, Glenn Morris, Josh Nulter, Avery Phillips, Kody Phillips, David Vann, and Wesel.