TERRE HAUTE – Almost smack dab in the center of a sea of runners were the Red Devils of West Lafayette, huddling together hoping not to hear their name called.
With the runner-up announcement on the horizon, each put arms around the nearest companion they could find and stared into the ground as if they were going to will the words from the public address system.
Finally, it came.
“In second, with a score of 140 points,” the PA announcer said before pausing for effect, “… the Greyhounds of Carmel.”
For the first time since 1964, when individual champion Mark Gibbens led coach Jim Tatlock’s squad, West Lafayette’s boys cross country team hoisted the state championship trophy.
The triumphant Red Devils edged two-time defending state champion Carmel by seven points and third-place Munster by 10 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program’s only title with their second state championship.
It was a plan put in place two years ago with a roster of freshmen and sophomores. Coach Steve Lewark’s approach all season was geared toward saving his runners’ legs for this moment, a gamble that more than paid off on Saturday afternoon at the Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.
“It sounds cliché, but it is hard to put into words exactly what was going through my mind,” WL senior Jake Cohen said. “When they said Carmel was second it was, for lack of a better phrase, a dream come true.
“I broke into tears. It was doves fly off, angels sing in the background sort of thing. It was just absolutely perfect.”
Cooper Williams, a favorite for the individual title, was third — but he was far more satisfied with the outcome as a whole than he would have been had he finished two places higher.
West Lafayette’s Travis Shinsky.
Carmel’s Ben Veatch and Brebeuf’s Zack Snider both pulled away from Williams in the stretch run, beating the Red Devil junior to the finish line by three seconds. It was the best third-place finish of Williams’ life.
“Team is way better and I am so happy, especially with these guys, the best team out there,” Williams said. “A lot of joyous tears. It was the best feeling ever.”
Flexing its small-school muscles, the West Lafayette program as a whole celebrated glory when the girls outperformed their No. 6 ranking to finish third behind national powers Carmel and Avon. Lewark said that was an even bigger surprise than the boys winning the championship.
Former national champion Anna Rohrer of Mishawaka broke her own course record, finishing in 17:08.8. Not far behind was fifth-place Lauren Johnson, who was the first of four Red Devils in the top 40.
“It was a lot better than expected,” Johnson said. “Everyone raced amazing and it just came out perfectly.
“Being a non-class sport, you have so much competition. With this competition, you can build up as a team, and you get podium and realize you are literally the third (girls) or first (boys) best team in the state. That is what we achieved today.”
Kristen Johnson was 15th, while the efforts of Rachel Bales (37th), Susan Hubbard (60th) and Annie Covington (94th) helped the Red Devil girls earn a fifth straight podium finish.
On the boys side, Williams was impressive but so was his twin brother Dylan, who bolted the best he could in the latter stages of the race. His 65th-place finish was just enough to propel the Red Devils ahead of Carmel in the team standings.
The pack of Evan Johnson (41st), Dominic Patacsil (44th) and Cohen (50th) also made a late charge that turned a dream of one year ago into a reality on a chilly afternoon.
For Cohen, it was especially satisfying.
About a month ago, a foot injury was reason for concern. Without the senior, West Lafayette surely wouldn’t have had enough firepower to compete with Carmel.
Knowing an opportunity like this doesn’t happen every year, or 50 years, Cohen endured the pain. Although he wasn’t 100 percent, his effort symbolized the lengths this team was willing to go for this moment.
“It was worth every bit of it. Every bit of it,” Lewark said. “After last year’s state meet, the goal was to come back this year and to win. We had some ups and downs this year. … I am still kind of in shock. I knew we had a good possibility of doing this. I knew this was our goal. When it happens, you sit there and, wow, you don’t know what to say.”
Lafayette Jeff, led by 99th-place finisher Cayce Griffin, finished 22nd among 24 teams. McCutcheon’s Adam Fields finished 66th. Twin Lakes’ Madeline Lilly finished 55th in the girls race.