It’s all about the experience
The news was fresh -- the De Soto boys cross country team's dream of a state championship hadn't been realized.
Coach Chris McAfee thanked his runners for the hard work and the fans for coming to help cheer, then asked that his team not forget one thing -- championship or not, it all made for one heck of a ride.
He said his Wildcats didn't realize for the first day of practice that they had a real shot at knocking off eight-time defending champion Baldwin, but once the Cats did just that in the first meet, everyone was on board.
They spent the season plotting and planning, training and dreaming. The team ended up third, good for its first-ever state trophy. It wasn't the top of the mountain, but what a ride.
"It was a blast of a senior year," De Soto senior Chris Dvorak said. "It's good to finally come back with some hardware from state. We've been working on it for the last three years. I'm really proud of what we did."
De Soto finished the state cross country meet with 94 points, 24 behind Baldwin and 31 behind new-champ El Dorado.
It was disappointing, McAfee said, but when considered with all the team accomplished this season, something to be proud of.
"There's a little bitter taste in the mouth with some, but I know when the season started -- even the day before we went to (the season opening meet at) Anderson County, they didn't believe," McAfee said. "They knew we would be good, but they didn't know we'd have a chance to win the state championship.
"The day before (Anderson County) I was trying to explain why we'd be good. I think looking back now they realize the season by far exceeded their expectations."
Turning the team's first trophy into its first step toward a real shot at the state title is another story entirely, McAfee said.
The Cats lose three runners from the seven that ran at the state cross country meet, and none will be easy to replace.
"With each of those guys, you lose something very unique that they brought to the team," McAfee said.
Tanner McNamara was De Soto's top finisher at state and his 13th-place finish made him a two-time state medalist.
McNamara battled injuries and illness through much of his junior and senior seasons and regularly finished back in the pack in practices. He found something extra on game day, however. He was a regional champion last year, then finished third this season.
"Tanner got his butt kicked every day in practice, but he was so tough in a race," McAfee said. "He would always step up."
Dvorak was De Soto's third finisher at state and represented a true worst-to-first tale. He ran at state three times thanks to a dramatic improvement from his first race as a freshman to his last as a senior.
"Chris was the epitome of hard work. He worked harder than anyone else to make himself into that kind of runner," McAfee said. "He had a very under-rated season."
It was a similar story with Matt Woywod, the team's No. 6 runner. Woywod was 55th at state.
"Matt's not exactly what you'd call a runner, but he worked hard and you got everything out of him for every race," McAfee said. "What those three guys brought to the program will be tough to replace."
The Cats did have a number of strong performances from underclassmen late in the season. Lucas Slater was 26th at state, ahead of Jerin Riffel in 41st and Colin Jokisch in 48th.
McAfee said the team no doubt has the potential to make another run, but those returning will need to step up, because nothing is a sure thing -- not even continuing the team's streak of four-straight years of qualifying as a team.
"The group of freshman we had this year have to step up. We have some good guys coming back. Colin and Lucas will be state medalists, and I see Brendan Hudson really stepping up and having a good year," McAfee said. "But we'll need to have some younger kids step up.
"We have some work to do to get back to state much less get back into the top three."