Cross Country Team Back on National Stage

Jim Amidon — Wabash College Cross Country Coach Roger Busch had his team back at the Division III National Championships again this year. It’s the third straight year the Little Giants have qualified as a team for the national meet after top-20 finishes in 2010 and 2011.

Sophomore Shane Hoerbert

While traveling to Terre Haute where the meet was held, I was reminded of much longer drives to national championship races back when Coach Busch was running for Rob Johnson in mid-1990s. I made trips with those teams to Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin during a stretch when Wabash captured four top-11 finishes in a row — capped by a third place finish in 1995.

Coach Busch’s young team — one senior, one junior, and five sophomores — ran brilliantly a week ago to take second place at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional.

Wabash didn’t fare as well last Saturday at the championships

The Little Giants placed 28th at the national meet. Sophomore Shane Hoerbert paced Wabash, but he was the team’s only runner to crack the top 100 individuals.

Nick Boyce

After the race, Coach Busch was disappointed. He knows his team is young and that nerves probably got the better of his runners, especially early in the race when a quick pace was set. The Little Giants lingered well back in the pack of almost 300 runners.

“We just never asserted ourselves,” the talented coach told me after the race. “We got out slowly and I expected our guys to make a move, but they never really did.”

Being a fierce competitor, Coach Busch didn’t want to use youth or inexperience as an excuse. He saw the same runners perform much better during earlier meets and he knows how much potential they have.

“At some point, even when you’re young, you have to start running to your potential and begin to assert yourself as a champion,” Busch said. “I think we’re at that point now — we need some guys to step up and learn how to compete in these big meets.”

I suspect Hoerbert and his teammates Nick Boyce, Billy McManus, Dalton Boyer, Daniel Hoover, and Jared Burris will use the indoor and outdoor track seasons to do exactly that — learn how to turn their potential into performance. Finishing second in the North Coast Athletic Conference and at the Great Lakes Regional proves the talent is there.

I remember Coach Busch’s sophomore year. He and Jeremy Wright and Scott Gall were brash young competitors whose second trip to the national championships didn’t go was well as they wanted. In fact, they ran well below their potential that year.

But that was the only time that happened for the rest of their careers at Wabash. Over the next two years, the team blitzed its competition in an unprecedented era of distance running success at Wabash.

They would go on to place fourth and third at the national championships. Perhaps even more impressive, they posted a perfect score at the 1995 Great Lakes Regional — Little Giants finished first through fifth for a score of 15, which is nearly impossible to accomplish in a race with more than 150 runners.

Sophomore Billy McManus

I suspect Coach Busch will use Saturday’s performance as a lesson on how to persevere through times of difficulty. He’ll talk to his runners about his own experiences at nationals when he was a sophomore and how the core group on that team dedicated itself to constant improvement.

Tagging along on Saturday was a lot of fun for me personally. It brought back fond memories from my time as Wabash’s sports information director. It also reminded me of just how great those Wabash teams of the early and mid-90s really were.

Will history repeat itself? Can Coach Busch drive his talented, but young team to heights of greatness?

I sure think so. After Saturday’s race was concluded, every single Wabash runner knew he hadn’t run his best race. Those guys realize that they can compete at a higher level.

Now the hard part begins. The weather has turned cold, but the Wabash cross country team knows now is the time when they have to begin preparations for next year. You’ll see them running in the morning and in the afternoon to log the miles they’ll need to become champions in the future.

It’s a safe bet this group will make a return to the national meet. And it’s also a safe bet that 20 years from now, someone like me will be looking back on last Saturday’s national championship as the point when the cross country program turned the corner.

Seniors Teach Freshmen Monon Tradition

Jim Amidon — Writing about the Monon Bell Classic never gets old or boring. There are always incredible stories leading into the famed football game between Wabash and DePauw, and certainly the actual game provides plenty of its own.

The 119th meeting of the two liberal arts colleges was played on a picture-perfect day at Hollett Little Giant Stadium. Some 7,000 Wabash faithful packed the home stands — and all of the temporary seats — to cheer on the Little Giants to their fourth straight win over their archrivals.

Winning four in a row is tough sledding. Not since 1979 had a Wabash senior class swept all four games against DePauw. And a 23-0 shutout was the second blanking in the last three years.

After the crushing home loss to Oberlin the week before, the Wabash football team was bruised — physically and emotionally. The playoff hopes were dashed. The conference championship was lost. All that remained was the Monon Bell.

And that’s plenty of motivation for any red-blooded Wabash football player.

When interviewed all week by the media, Wabash’s seniors Weston Kitley, Chase Belton, Pat Clegg, and Austin Hodges spoke about the importance of winning the Bell Game and becoming only the 10th class in the 119-year history of the rivalry to sweep DePauw.

Those same seniors quietly talked about their concerns, too. They wondered if Wabash’s freshman and sophomore starters — about 10 in all — would understand the importance of the game.

Tyler McCullen celebrates after a tackle.

When the freshmen were interviewed — guys like Tre Taylor, Justin Woods, and Tyler McCullen — they spoke in unison: they would play their hearts out for the seniors. The freshmen got it; they figured it out so perfectly. When the seniors’ other goals of going undefeated and winning the league title were gone, the freshmen players knew they HAD to do their part to win the Monon Bell. For the seniors.

When the ball was kicked off on Saturday with AXS TV on hand to share the rivalry with the rest of the country, Wabash played with nervous sloppiness. The freshmen were pressing. So were the seniors.

Wanting to win so badly and to avoid an upset in a second straight week created even more pressure. Add to that all the importance the College’s alumni place on winning against DePauw and it was easy to see why Wabash came out unfocused.

The offensive line was penalized repeatedly in the first and second quarters for holding and illegal motion. Those are penalties created by nerves.

But once Belton and Tyler Holmes found a rhythm — running and passing — the offense started to calm down. By game’s end, Kitley and his offensive line mates (including the rookies Taylor and tight end Darren Bost) helped Wabash put 275 rushing yards in the stat book.

Holmes, battered and bruised, rushed for more yards (169) than the Tigers had as a team (142).

On the other side of the ball, Hodges and fellow seniors Clegg and Jonathan Koop set the tone. Big hits, one after the other, and constant pressure on DePauw’s quarterbacks allowed the Tigers to cross mid-field only once in the entire game.

What impressed me most was the play of the rookies, who have been guided and mentored by the seniors and learned the important lessons of Monon Bell history.

McCullen was remarkable. So was Justin Woods, playing in his first Bell Game. Jon Laird made two huge catches.

The veterans played mightily, too. Nate Scola brought intensity. When DePauw was able to complete a pass, Scola and his fellow linebackers A.J. Akinribade and Cody Buresh brought the hammer.

After the sloppiness of the first half, Wabash calmed down. The defense roared and the offense pounded the Tigers into submission.

I’ve seen 30 Monon Bell Games in a row and each year I discover something different or unique about this famed rivalry, which is built on mutual respect and admiration among the rivals.

This year, I saw more keenly the passing on of tradition. It was more apparent how critical it is for seniors to teach the freshmen how to focus; how to play hard; how to treat every play in the Monon Bell Game as if it were your last.

While the Little Giants got poor marks for penalties, the team received straight A’s in the most important category: the teaching and learning of the greatness of the rivalry.

All of Wabash is proud of the seniors for capping their careers in such grand fashion. All of Wabash is equally proud of the players who participated in the Bell Game for the first time, and who so quickly figured out that winning or losing the Monon Bell lasts a lifetime.