Local CC runners hoping to find a path to Columbus

Yaneek Smith

Press Contributing Writer
When the chips were down, the area athletes answered the call.
The local boys and girls cross-country runners ran well at the district tournament as four teams — one of which won a title — and three individuals advanced to regionals.
On the boys' side, Waite junior Elias Valdez had the performance of a lifetime, cutting nearly a minute off his personal record by running the five kilometers in 16 minutes, 21.47 seconds, good for 15th place and just enough to qualify for a Division I regional meet.
Lake's Micah Balsmeyer was just as impressive, winning a Div. II district championship by finishing first in 16:41.09, and the Flyers advanced to regionals as a team for the fifth time in program history by finishing fourth with 103 points. (Liberty-Benton won the 11-team field with 28 points, followed by Otsego and Genoa.)
"I'm thrilled for the boys," said Lake coach Montana Garcia. "We knew where we were seeded, we knew we had a chance as long as we showed up and did what we had to do. It was pretty awesome to watch. I'm very excited."
Lake appears to be turning the corner.
"There's been a lot of coaching turnover, so that kind of took its toll on the program. I don't know exactly, but there have been three or four coaches in the last 10 years with me coaching the last four to five years," said Garcia. "It was hard for the kids to buy-in to the program because of the turnover. They're coming around and realize that if we put in the work in practice and the summer, we can be pretty good. I think we've done a pretty good job on the boys' side. I'd like more numbers to help with our depth."
Balsmeyer, who also won the Northern Buckeye Conference title, had his teammate, Luke Steep, finish ninth in 17:51.43. Connor McClellan was 17th in 18:21.97, followed by Frank Swails (22nd in 18:36.26) and Anthony Adams (57th in 21:38.47). Ethan Brown, who was 69th in 24:18.27, and Wyatt Rawski, who was 71st in 24:39.42, rounded out the varsity.
Balsmeyer, who is also a soccer player, improved 32 seconds from what he ran to win the NBC championship, going from 17:13.99 to 16:41.09. Before that, he finished fifth at the Fostoria Invitational in 17:25.91 and was fifth at The Battle of Turtle Creek in 17:04.05.
"Micah is obviously very talented. He was the league runner-up the last two years and won this time," said Garcia, a 2002 Woodmore alum that was a stellar athlete during his days in high school. "His times have been pretty consistent. He's been capable. He went sub-17:00 earlier in the season. It was a PR for him. He's exciting to watch. You don't question if he had anything left (after a race)."
Garcia talked about some of the other runners.
"I could probably tell you something about all of them. Luke is a new edition, he ran track in the past and cross country in junior high. We snagged him from football. He is extraordinarily motivated and is a passionate young man. It's contagious. He's a junior, so he has the leadership qualities," said Garcia. "We call Frank 'Trip,' he's a freshman for us, he's been doing great things for us, abundantly passionate, it's contagious. Wyatt gives it his all in practice. He's running and making sure he gets as much out of his workouts as he can. He's a great kid, fun to coach. Connor is a senior, not terribly outspoken, but he gets the kids on the line and ready to go, making sure everyone is doing what they need to do."
The Comets packed together as seven runners came in between 14th and 30th place, respectively. The first four runners finished between 14th and 19th place, respectively. Alex Shinaver led the way by finishing 14th in 18:17.05, followed by James Huston (15th in 18:20.72), Chase Cooper (18th in 18:24.44), Nate Wise (19th in 18:30.01), Kaden McWatters (23rd in 18:41.94), Ben Sommers (27th in 18:50.59) and Braden Lesher (30th in 19:01.93).
"The boys are a young team and have seen a lot of growth this season. Four of our top seven runners are freshmen and sophomores. The whole team put in a lot of miles over August and September, and they've all been racing consistently and improving," said Genoa coach Brett Strickland. "Seeing senior Kaden McWatters become Ottawa County champion was a cool moment. A big component of our team this year has been seeing our middle group of guys compete and switch finishing spots. They definitely push one another as much or more than the teams we're competing against.
"The whole team is grateful to have another week of racing. I think the boys still have some unfinished business. They know they have more in them—faster times, lower places, and they're excited for another race to leave everything they have out on the course."
Two other area runners finished in the top 16. Oak Harbor's Gavin Witt qualified by running a 17:57.17, good enough to finish 10th, and Eastwood's John Stewart advanced as well, coming in 16th in 18:20.98.
In a Div. III district tournament, Tyler Hill of Gibsonburg came in ninth in 17:22.44, good enough to advance to regionals.
On the girls' side, Eastwood finished second in a Div. II district tournament, coming in behind Lexington.
Three Eagles finished in the top 10 — Leah Emch (3rd in 19:18.51), Haley Sponaugle (4th in 19:30.27) and Z Ramsey (10th in 20:07.86). Emily Payne was 17th in 21:17.06 and Maggie Ramsey was 24th in 21:59.64. Emerson Sheets (31st in 22:35.24) and Jadyn Lubash (32nd in 22:43.15) rounded out the varsity.
In Div. III, Genoa won a district championship in Findlay as three of its runners finished in the top 10 and five came in the top 30. Lindsey Brown was eighth in 20:58.10, Tatum Szych was ninth in 21:03.24, Stella Rethman was 10th in 21:03.70, Olivia Martin came in 20th in 21:39.05, Roman Huss placed 30th in 22:16.29 and Josie Lesniewicz (36th in 22:36.03) and Sydney Harp (40th in 22:47.95) rounded out the varsity.
Strickland, who also coaches the girls, had this to say.
"It's been a slow build throughout the season for the girls team. We don't run a lot of fast courses, and they haven't had a lot of days that were great for racing. It seems like if we weren't fighting rain and mud then we were running in the heat. Our league meet was a day our team won't ever forget—it was pouring rain the whole time, the wind was turning umbrellas inside out, and the hill turned into a mudslide," he said. "All that to say, both teams have had to be tough all season, and I think it helped them at districts, because when they finally got to a fast course and reasonable weather, they were ready to go. This team has worked hard, and it was a proud moment for everyone to see them make their mark on the program by winning the first district championship. They raised the bar for future teams.
"The time drops from that race were big. Lindsey Brown dropped 22 seconds to lead the team and break 21 for the first time. Liv Martin dropped 26 seconds to run in the 21:00s for the first time. Sydney Harp dropped 28 seconds. Roman Huss, a senior, cut off three seconds and passed a key runner right before the chute. Tatum Szych and Stella Rethman, both freshmen, ran low 21:00s. Senior Josie Lesniewicz ran a solid time. Lindsay, Tatum, Stella, and Liv all qualified for regionals as individuals.
The girls talked about finishing first.
"To me, winning districts is our team getting the recognition it deserves," said Martin. "Our team has worked through the summer and now through all of the post season to earn this title. I truly just think of how proud I am of the team whenever I think about winning districts."
Huss is one of the seniors on the team.
"It was an amazing experience to win districts my senior year," she said. "Thinking about the race and the week that led up to it still makes me smile because it's kind of hard to believe that we did that. It makes me so proud to be a part of this team and I'm so grateful for the experience."
Leniewicz is another senior.
"It felt great knowing that my last year as a Genoa cross country runner, I was able to be a part of an amazing team that created school history," she said. "We have worked so hard the past couple months, and all that hard work paid off when we became district champions."
Woodmore's Emma Hammer also qualified for regionals, placing sixth in 20:34.86.
At another district tournament in Liberty Center, Northwood's Miriam Fowler advanced to regionals, coming in eighth in 20:42.58. It was a steady improvement from her three previous performances, which saw her improve from 21:45.65 at the Old Fort Invite to 21:39.92 at the Fostoria Athletic Boosters Invite and 21:35.98 at the Toledo Area Athletic Conference Tournament where she finished second.
Her coach, Gina Warnke, talked about her steady improvement.
"We taper going into districts. I cut back her mileage so she'd go in fresh," Warnke said. "We aligned her with some runners that we thought would break 21 minutes, and that helped her drop her time.The determination and grit that she has, too, played a key role.
"I think she's going to have a great future and become a stronger runner. Her summer mileage was key. She's doing the workouts, doesn't complain, does what we ask her to do, and knows why."
Warnke came to Northwood after more than 20 years at Oak Harbor. This year, the girls' team had just four girls.
"I'm in the building, so I can do some recruitment," she said. "It starts at the junior high. I'm a seventh-grade teacher. The fifth and sixth graders will hopefully feed in, and we'll have personal growth and drop times."


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