Mason boys cross country team used patience, strategy to get to state championship meet

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After managing expectations and injury, the Mason Bulldogs boys cross country team finished third at the 14-2 regional meet at Uncle John’s Cider Mill and qualified for the state championships this Saturday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.

Nicole Bush

Members of the Mason boys cross country team during their warm-up laps on the Mason track.

The Bulldogs missed qualifying by one spot last fall.

Junior Ben Darmofal said it was obvious the team trained hard over the summer with the goal of reaching the state finals this season. But as the season got going the team’s hopes started to fall apart.

The competition from regional teams was stiffer than expected.

Coach Charles Miller said he told his team, “There’s three really good teams ahead of us and we’ll just have to see how it goes.”  The mindset shifted to focus on individual goals and just seeing how the season played out.

On top of tough competition Darmofal got achilles tendonitis in August.

Darmofal said his achilles didn’t fully recover after two weeks off, so he resumed training, running through the injury.

Kenny Stalzer

Nicole Bush

Senior Kenny Stalzer during his warm-up laps on the Mason track.

Darmofal’s injury left senior Kenny Stalzer to train alone most of the season, Stalzer said. But the last few weeks of the season he’s seen Darmofal gain momentum.

Then, Miller said, one of the “three really good teams” performances started slipping and Mason beat them at a league meet.

Miller said he told his team, “We’ll just have to see what happens here, but if for some reason they don’t come back to their normal level, that puts us in the picture. Along with probably three other teams,”

Then slipping team ran even worse on its home course the next league meet, he said.

After that race, Miller said the Bulldogs got word that the team was dealing with illness and injury.

At that point, Miller said, he told his team, “OK, it’s on now. Now we have a shot.”

So the team’s mindset shifted again, right back to the state championships, Darmofal said. There was a feeling of, “We can do it.”

The shift in focus “definitely made practices more exciting,” Stalzer said. ”Like something to look forward to every single practice” because his teammates were locked in.

Mason Boys Cross Country Team

Nicole Bush

Members of the Mason boys cross country team have fun during their warm-up laps on the Mason track.

“It gave us a bigger goal to reach,” Stalzer said.

On Oct. 27, the day of the regional meet, Miller said, he told his team, “Just worry your place.” He would be yelling places and if anyone was above their place, they were probably doing really well.

As the race played out, one athlete who ranked somewhere in the 50s, Trent Stuewe, finished in 36th place, Miller said.

Stalzer said he was was ranked sixth and got fourth.

Darmofal said he moved up five spots.

Miller said he asked a guy to go out faster than he normally would and asked another guy to go with him. It worked.

Those individual improvements meant that, as a team, the runners secured third place and a spot on the starting line at the state championships on Saturday.  

Stalzer said, “During the race I was so anxious to finally see if we would make it or not.”

Nicole Bush

The backpacks of the Mason girls and boys cross country teams line a small portion of the hallway while the athletes practice.

“I was pretty confident when they crossed the line, that—that we had made it,” Miller said of seeing his fourth- and fifth-place runners finish.

“You lay out the plan” and sometimes it works, Miller said, “This time it did.”

This weekend, Darmofal is looking “to live out our whole season’s goal really,” he said. “It’s the whole reason we train so it’s going to be cool to just be there and do it.”

The Mason Bulldogs boys cross country team will compete in the division two race at 2:50 p.m. on Nov. 4, at MIS in Brooklyn, Michigan. Admission is $8. Purchase tickets here.