The Kenston boys cross-country team was deadlocked in seventh place with two-time defending state champion Hudson and 800 meters to go in the Division I state race Saturday at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron.
Before the postseason got underway, the Explorers were the favorites to three-peat a state title with eight of 12 first-place votes in the Ohio Association of Track and Cross-Country Coaches state poll.
Surely, a juggernaut like Hudson would outkick the puny Division I selection pool of a school like Kenston, but the Bomber harriers, who were favored to finish eighth before the postseason began, were rolling with downhill momentum on the big stage.
And that was despite an early obstacle out of the gates.
“We were dead last 500 meters into the race,” Kenston 13th-year head coach Chris Ickes said. “There was a boy from Thomas Worthington who tripped and fell on the ground, and where did he fall? Of course, he fell right in front of the Kenston pack. So, there was a big slowdown in the race as our boys had to hurdle and move to the side.
“It was unfortunate that it happened on our side of the race course. But they did a really good job responding, really showed their determination, their grit, their persistence.”
If a runner eats dirt in the first 100 meters, the race gets called back for a restart. Unfortunately, the Thomas Worthington boy took a nose dive about 250 meters into the race, which put a damper on any early rhythm the Bombers might have had or were hoping to get.
But the Kenston boys came in as region champs and moved into 14th at the 1,600-meter mark of the 5-kilometer race. As their pack progressed and continued to move up during the latter two-thirds, they were on pace to turn in their program’s best Division I state performance.
The Bombers’ front five runners, led by junior Dennis Princic, combined to pick off 346 spots from the mile mark to the finish line to score 232 points for sixth place – the second-best team finish from Northeast Ohio this year, only to be outdone by Solon, which finished third with 211 points.
Over the course of those final 800 meters, Kenston outran Hudson by 12 spots and netted 17 spots to take over Hilliard Davidson for sixth place.
“We talk a lot about respecting our opponents, and I think a lot of that comes because there were definitely some words we heard this year that were a lack of respect towards us,” Ickes said. “It was very nice to be in front of the two-time defending state champions at the region and at the state meet.
“I was just very proud to see that our guys were consistent and ran for each other.”
Princic, who was making his state debut for the Bombers, finished 24th in 16:15.0 among 140 runners in the team race, while senior David Rosinski took 44th in 16:32.0, junior Jack Turk was 48th in 16:37.9, junior Tyler McMahan finished 50th in 16:38.6 and junior Nathan Bertman took 66th in a lifetime best 16:48.5, while senior Casey Pleune, 17:05.9, and junior Garrett McConnell, 17:20.1, rounded out Kenston’s state team.
It took a 16:00.8 for a top-30 all-Ohio finish this season.
“Dennis (Princic) and David (Rosinski) worked with each other every single day in practice,” Ickes said. “What was really good was that either one of them could lead us. They had really good chemistry. And David is a total team player. When Dennis finished ahead of him at regionals for the first time, he was happier for Dennis than I think Dennis was.
“It was the same thing in the state race. They just really filled each other with inspiration and admiration. They didn’t care who was one, two, three, four, five. They were just going to run for each other and lay it all out there.”
The start of the state race is downhill and then flattens out in front of the grandstands with a lot of adrenaline for some quick mile splits, but Princic, who split a 5:07.7, was the only Bomber in the top 100, among 186 harriers overall, at that point in the race.
In particular, Kenston No. 4 runner McMahan had the best latter two-thirds of his squad, passing up 54 runners from the mile mark to the finish line.
“Tyler McMahan has grown so much in his race confidence,” Ickes said. “He was having some digestion issues and was near last about 400 meters in and just fought back. He just improved so much. It would have been very easy for him to say, ‘All right, my race is over.’ But he kept fighting and fighting and ended up being our fourth man of the day.”
Meanwhile, with Bertman bringing up the scoring caboose in personal-record fashion, after not even being a top-seven varsity runner earlier this season, the Bombers had a 33.6-second gap between their first and fifth runners for the third-best spread in the field – only outdone by third-place Solon, 19.5 seconds, and 13th-place Ashland, 30 seconds.
Overall, Kenston came just five points shy of fourth-place Gahanna Lincoln, with the Bombers simply running out of track.
Only 38 points separated the third-through-10th-place teams among 20 squads in the field, while Cincinnati St. Xavier, 92 points, and Mason, 97, ran away with the top two spots. Enrollment wise, St. Xavier has more boys in a class, on average, than Kenston has in its entire high school.
“Cincinnati St. Xavier, who won the state championship, after the race, we went over and congratulated them,” Ickes said. “And one of their lead runners said, ‘We didn’t even know who Kenston was until three weeks ago.’ It’s great to see that the program is taking steps forward in that regard. I just hope we can continue to put ourselves up there with the big guns.”
Just a few short years ago, coach Ickes heralded his program for having five guys regularly break the 18-minute mark.
Kenston has now become a regular with five guys breaking the 17-minute barrier on a consistent basis.
“I’m super proud of that,” Ickes said. “Kyle Hoehnen was my first man the first year I coached. He ran a 17:47 as a PR. He was the only person to break 18 (minutes). We had 12 boys run faster than that PR this year. It’s pretty amazing to see how well it’s progressed.”
In the Division I girls race, meanwhile, Kenston junior Ellie Pleune made her third trip to the National Trail Raceway and clocked a lifetime best 19:07.4 to finish 42nd among 184 runners in the field. She was just 13.6 seconds shy of being an all-Ohioan.
Last year, Pleune finished 144th in 20:59.7 at the big dance.
“Ellie’s really persevered through a lot,” Ickes said. “It was a really up-and-down year for her. She went through a lot of personal growth, and for her to show the resilience she’s shown in the past two weeks is simply amazing. She’s always been a great racer, but this year was a little bit different. She was much calmer and more confident, and she just kept fighting through.”