The Seneca East Tigers were running with a little extra baggage Saturday at the Tiffin Cross Country Carnival. However, it didn't slow them down. In fact, it seemed to speed them up.
Seneca East carried a bulls-eye on its back that came with the Division III state championship the Tigers won last November. But all that could be seen of the Tigers by their competition were their backs.
In a field of 267 runners in the Division III-A race, Seneca East claimed three of the top six spots and defeated Summit Country Day 117-154 in the team standings.
Jason Willman crossed the line first in 15:57.95, with teammate Jared Stockmaster close behind, finishing second in 16:06.32. Carson Pipher ran sixth, checking in at 16:37.74.
"Obviously this is one of the marquee events in the state this weekend and it's a showcase of the top level," Seneca East coach Doug Mason said. "To come away and win it, and to go 1-2 in that race [is great]. We could see Jared coming on this week. He really likes this place and has been running well. He's just still figuring it out, what he's capable of. He just followed Jason around there and of course Jason does what he does. Good performance. It's nice for the community - we have a lot of people here - to run so well."
Willman said the performance gives a good indication of where the team is at, all ready having sights set on the state meet.
"This is what we've been working all year to do," he said. "I think the team did really well today too, so that's good. That really tells us where were at for the beginning of November."
Wes Pipher added a 27th (17:14.09) and Michael Szabo finished 81st (18:10.96) to round out the Tiger scorers.
"I think we did a fantastic job," Willman said. "I think everyone ran well."
After the race, Carson Pipher admitted the team's strategy was to run together, evidenced by the team holding the top three spots for a good portion of the race.
"We try and stay together as close as we can for as long as we can during the race," Pipher said. "They want us to go out pretty fast and try and lead the race a little bit. With Jason on our team, he kind of pushes us and helps us along through the race. Jared's been stepping up a little bit. I think everybody is pretty much pitching in what they can."
"We try our best to stick together, so that way in the end we can have a good strong pack time," Stockmaster added.
The three stuck together as long as they could before Pipher slipped back to sixth. Stockmaster stuck on Willman's heels for most of the race before Willman pulled away late.
"I tried to stay up with Jason the best I could but that third hill is the killer," Stockmaster said. "Me and him ran good the second mile, but then he pulled away and I couldn't pull away with him."
Mason said with the large number of runners, getting out fast and avoiding getting caught in the pack was a key to the team's success. Once they were able to do that, they were able to put on a show for the spectators.
"That race is huge. We tell our kids to get out early or get stuck or pinned back," he said. "This year's top end field, there isn't as many high, high quality runners. Last year there was just an intense group there. But it is impressive. You don't see that happen to often at the Carnival, a team having three in the top six. At a quality meet like this, a lot of people you heard in the crowd was like 'Wow, these guys are pretty good.'"
The Tigers are well aware that every other team in the state is aiming for them, which is to be expected after a state championship. But they're not folding under the pressure. Instead it serves as a point of motivation.
"It seems like every race, everyone's shooting to get us," Willman said. "So we got to make sure we're on our best game all the time.
"You some away knowing that you've already won one and you got to work that much harder to get the second one. It's not easy to do, so we know we got to keep working hard every day."
"Last year we were the ones doing the chasing, now people are chasing us," Mason added. "It's a whole different personality, or qualities, you have to have to handle that, to handle the pressure of it. We obviously have some work to do. Our pack time is still just a little too wide at this point. But it's early in the season so these guys work hard in practice. You just got to keep aiming for the end of the season, that's what it all dials down to."