By Eric Mauk
Sometimes in sports, all you can do is all you can do.
Each member of the McDonald boys cross country team ran a personal-best time at Saturday’s Division III state meet in Kirkersville, and the team’s average time was the best of the meet, but despite the strong performances the Blue Devils ended the day six points away from earning their seventh Division III state title.
Paced by All-Ohio performers Bobby Johnson and Patrick Kunkel, McDonald put four runners in the top 50, but fell just shy of Attica Seneca East, 107-101.
“How can you go from being so excited one minute and so disappointed then next when the [team] points came out?” lamented McDonald coach Chris Rupe. “The guys ran really well, everybody ran personal records, we just didn’t get the win.”
Johnson (15:39.45) and Kunkel (15:45.31) finished fifth and sixth in the 5,000-meter race held at National Trail Raceway to lead the Blue Devils while Alan Coviello (16:38.98), Tyler Smith (16:44.14) and Zach Hawout (17:08.12) rounded out the scoring. The seven-man team’s average time was nearly six seconds better than that of Seneca East, but the team from Attica finished with four of its runners in the top 35 to take the title.
“The last two years have been the toughest I have ever seen in Division III. There are a lot of great programs,” Rupe said. “Our guys did just what we wanted to do from a strategic standpoint and ran really well, we just got beat by a stronger team today.”
Meanwhile the expected showdown between McDonald and Maplewood never materialized as the state’s top-ranked squad settled for fourth place behind Sugarcreek Garaway. Maplewood, which was led by senior Wyatt Hartman (16:14.47) and junior Solomon Yoder (16:14.88), ran into some early-race problems that sent a ripple effect through the team as the race progressed.
“Strategically we got about what we wanted, but we had one runner that didn’t get where he wanted to be at the start of the race and that set him back,” said Rockets coach Doug Deeter. “When that happens, you start to press, and then the other guys notice that he isn’t where he wants to be and they start to press and it had an effect on us today.”
For McDonald’s top finishers Johnson and Kunkel, the strategy of going out with the leaders early paid big dividends as both runners ended up on the podium.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to get on the podium,” said Johnson. “Coming down the final stretch and knowing I was in the top five and realizing there was no one coming up from behind was a great feeling. We knew that if we could stay with the top three guys we would have a good day. We had to go with them and if you die doing it, at least you died trying.”
Kunkel’s sixth-place run for the Blue Devils wrapped up a strong four-year career that saw him finish in the top 15 in each of his four years.
“It’s been an amazing four years. I’ve been fortunate to run here because there is always someone that is running right beside me and pushing me,” said Kunkel. “I have four older brothers that ran here and I watched them and wanted to be just like them. I’ve given a lot to McDonald cross country but it’s given me so much back. I couldn’t be happier.”
Maplewood had three underclassmen in its top five on Saturday, including freshman Tristan Dahmen, who finished 33rd with a time of 16:31.87. Tristan competed alongside his cousin Mike, who completed his senior season by posting a time of 17:15.38 to finish the Rockets’ scoring.
“It was a great feeling and a great experience to run at the state meet with my cousin,” said the older of the two Dahmen runners. “I told Tristan to try and enjoy the experience but that it is a talented field so you have to go out and take your best shot. Nobody was going to give anything up.”
Despite falling short after coming into the weekend as the top-ranked team in the state, Coach Deeter was encouraged by the fourth-place result, which landed the 2012 squad in the school’s Hall of Fame.
“When you are ranked as high as we were coming in, it is disappointing to have a day like this,” Deeter said. “At the beginning of the year we never expected to be ranked No. 1, and to accomplish what we did this year was a great feat. But to win a state championship you have to have five guys run perfect races because the field was so strong. We have a lot of build on for next year and a lot to be proud of.”