KENTON -- While the headwinds may have been strong, the DHS boys and girls cross country packs proved they were stronger, as each team claimed runner-up status in the Western Buckeye League championship meet on Saturday morning at the Hardin County Fairgrounds in a pair of very tight races.
The Defiance girls finished just 11 points behind WBL champion Shawnee before the boys were edged by Van Wert by a mere eight points.
In the boys race, Defiance recovered nicely from a season which has been plagued by injuries, most notably involving junior standout and defending WBL individual champion Abel Flores.
However, after having been back with the team for a few races, Flores defended his title with an admirable time of 16:34, besting runner-up Jared Fleming of Van Wert by 18 seconds.
"That kid's got a really big heart to be banged up like he was and be able to come back and take this championship into the wind at 16:34," praised DHS boys coach Obie Mouser. "It's pretty amazing because things were bleak there for us, and he gave it everything he had. It would have been interesting to see what it would be like if we didn't have this hurricane out here. You can't be more proud of a kid's effort like that."
With Fleming taking an early lead for the first half mile, Flores picked up the pace to not only pass Fleming, but coast away from the field of 145 runners.
"I've been feeling good since I've been racing for the past few weeks," Flores admitted. "But I thought the wind was bad ... it was pretty rough. I think we definitely showed that out team is definitely improved from last year. Hopefully we can make it to state this year."
Also enduring injuries to senior Jacob Rosebrock and junior Ben Rath throughout the season, Mouser was especially pleased to see his team come together in time for the postseason. With 44 points, Defiance ran away from third-place Shawnee's score of 107.
"It feels great in that our kids have worked really hard, and we had a tough year," explained the DHS mentor. "Rosey (Rosebrock) has been hurt and Able's been hurt and Ben Rath has had the same situation with the hip. I'm not making excuses, but for our season it's been tough on us. We've had to run most of the season without a complete team together. Who knows? In the next few weeks, we may pull off a big one here. I look for us to do that."
Defiance received a nice push from sophomore newcomer Alex Barrientos, who crossed the finish line in fourth place overall as the 'Dogs' number-two runner.
"Alex is new and he's not really in great shape yet," said Mouser. "When he's in great shape, Able's going to have somebody right on his tail in another year, I'll tell you that."
Said Barrientos: "I think I learned a lot from both Able and coach (Mouser), they taught me a lot. I learned to not start out real fast, to pace myself and just work hard. I think we did pretty good today, but we could have done a lot better. I think we could have won it."
While Rosebrock finished tenth, Rath placed 14th and junior Alex Schrag packed in at 15th for the Bulldog harriers, Van Wert's Connor Holiday finished third as Kase Schalois (7th), Connor Shaffer (11th) and Nathan Stevens (13th) slipped in front of the DHS top finishers late in the race. According to Mouser, that made all the difference between a WBL title and second place.
"We had some great runs out of Schrag and out of Rosebrock," he pointed out. "That really made it a close meet. What really probably hurt us in this meet is that Van Wert's four and five guys ran much better than they have been running, and then our four and five got caught. Had we have been able to stick their four and five and stay at least one guy ahead of them, I think we probably would have won this. But we gave it a great effort ... it was a great run, a nice course. It was pretty neat, except for the wind."
In the girls meet, Defiance improved its third-place showing in last year's WBL meet, taking second by a mere six points over third-place Celina in the poor running conditions.
"Today was never going to be about time, it was only going to be about place," said Defiance girls coach Scott Saner. "We knew that four teams came today with a chance to win, and I'm really happy. I wanted them to be aggressive. I told one through nine (not to) run safe today because if you're in 50th place it isn't going to make any difference in the race ... you might as well get in it and go and see what you can do."
What they did was pack their top-five runners in the top-20 positions.
Trailing WBL champion Hannah Fleck (19:15) of Celina and runner-up Andi Foster of Van Wert, Defiance senior Kristen Fett led DHS in third place with a time of 20:08. Meanwhile, freshman Olivia Fett came in behind her older sister in seventh.
"Kristen ran really well," praised Saner. "She's been getting better and better as the season's gone on.
"And Olivia's running well," he added. "Before she's done she's going to do a lot of things here. She's got a lot in her that she doesn't realize that she's got, and she'll figure that out as she gets older and more experienced. But a top-10 finish was something we definitely needed out of her. I thought she competed well today."
Fett commented on running a great race with her younger sibling in tow, saying, "It's really nice running with her. I like having her around. It's different and it's been an adjustment, but we push each other. We run well and we get along, so I think it really helps the team having us there."
Defiance appeared to be in prime shape for a WBL crown toward the beginning of the race, but Shawnee's Adrienne Pohl, Jamie Kuhlman and Molly Scott broke in front of the Defiance pack of seniors Candice Lawson, Brittney Holmes and freshman Rachel Jones in the last mile to steal the race.
"I'll be honest with you, we were really aggressive ... we might have been too aggressive early, and it caught us a little bit at the end," admitted Saner. "Shawnee deserves a lot of credit, they finished the race really well. I had some freshmen in my top five, and I thought they ran really well for being young kids in a pressure environment like this. But we gave it our best effort, and I'll take second place. It's an improvement over last year."
"Candice Lawson had a great, great first two miles and gutted it out the best she could from there, and Brittney Holmes had a great one," he added. "We needed somebody to step up to be number five, and Rachel was going to be that person. She came through big time for us today."
Lawson and Holmes reflected on the final league meet of their high school careers.
"I think our goal was to stay together, and I think what we do when we get close enough to each other is push each other," stated Lawson. "We try to get as close as we can to each other every race and just push. It pushes us, it pushes our competition and it pushes the rest of the team to follow us. That's what we do."
Added Holmes: "To tell you the truth, I think I started to cry a little bit at the finish line because we did so much better than last year. That's how I wanted to end my senior year."
The DHS CC packs will now prepare for Division II district competition on Saturday at Ottawa Park.
Van Wert 36, Defiance 44, Shawnee 107, St. Marys 115, Ottawa-Glandorf 119, Celina 137, Wapkoneta 179, Elida 244, Kenton 271, Bath 321
Abel Flores (D), 16:34; Jared Fleming (VW); Connor Holiday (VW); Alex Barrientos (D); Brandon Sevitz (S); Nick Durkee (SM); Kase Schlois (VW); Derek Pease (C); Cole Mertz (C); Jacob Rosebrock (D).
Other Defiance Finishers
14. Ben Rath; 15. Alex Schrag; 20. Jordan Harpest; 27. Nate Wichman; 28. Garrett Wiles; 42. Austin Fraley; 43. Josh Quintero; 44. David Proulx; 58. Dakota Cereghin; 76. Matthew Winner; 77. Mitchell Gerken; 87. Tom Koester; 89. Nicholos Solether; 97. Austin Herzog; 118. Isaac Thomas.
Shawnee 42, Defiance 53, Celina 59, Van Wert 71, Ottawa-Glandorf 133, St. Marys 183, Wapkoneta 189, Kenton 252, Bath 275, Elida 278
Hannah Fleck (C), 19:15; Andi Foster (VW); Kristen Fett (D); Jenna Coon (C); Maddie Cohorn (S); Emily Wolery (S); Olivia Fett (D); Andrea Bell (C); Adrienne Pohl (S); Jamie Kuhlman (S).
Other Defiance Finishers
13. Candice Lawson; 14. Brittney Holmes; 16. Rachel Jones; 29. Katie Koester; 39. Ellie Roehrig; 47. Angelica Quintero; 65. Neve Detmer.