Every sports program peaks.
That inevitability ends dynastic championship runs, sooner or later. Many factors contribute: the competition catches up, or complacency sets in, or younger generations of athletes can’t match the intense desire of the ones before them.
For the last eight years, the rest of the state has wondered when it will be time for the Festus boys cross country team to lay down the perennial championship mantle. The Tigers won the first of their 10 state crowns in 2009 and a second in 2012 before embarking in 2014 on their historic run of eight state championships in a row.
If you think that streak is about to end, consider that in 2021 the Tigers beat second-place West Plains by 110 points (38-148) in the Class 4 state meet at Gans Creek in Columbia, the Tigers’ largest margin of victory during the current championship run. The Zizzers are tied with Herculaneum’s boys for the most state titles (13) in state history. The Blackcats claimed their 13th in Class 3 last year. During the Tigers’ championship streak, Ste. Genevieve came the closest in 2016 when Festus won 56-68.
With the graduation losses of seven seniors, two who were all-state (top 25) last year, and with injuries to two of their top runners, plus increased competition from schools like Hillsboro, it will be the biggest challenge yet for the Tigers to extend their record another year.
So far, so good. Festus easily won its first meet of the season at the Fort Zumwalt North Twilight Invitational on Aug. 27, scoring 38 points. Lafayette, sixth in the state in Class 5 last year, was second with 83 points. Five Tigers finished among the top 13 runners. Senior Ian Schram was the top runner for Festus with a fourth-place time of 16:48.10.
“We’re progressing the way we should, to be successful at the state meet,” Festus head coach Bryant Wright said last week.
A big factor will be the health of senior Cullen Krieg and junior Bryson Rhine, both battling injuries. Krieg is a three-time state medalist, with finishes of fifth, second and sixth place. Rhine finished 52nd at state a year ago. A host of underclassmen are running to fill the gaps in the top seven.
“I told three sophomores (Lucas Campbell, Tate Uding and Jimmy Wacker) during track season that if we’re going to win again, one of you needs to be all-state,” Wright said. “All three of them took it to heart and had great summers.”
At the Twilight meet, Campbell was 10th in 17:36.70, Uding came in 11th in 17:37.90 and Wacker placed 13th in 17:41.70.
Krieg’s first race is supposed to be Saturday when Festus hosts the Bowles Invitational at Larry G. Crites Memorial Park. He’s been undergoing physical therapy in St. Louis to strengthen his legs, hips and core as he rehabilitates from a leg injury caused by overcompensating from inflammation in the opposing foot. He didn’t need surgery or medicine for it, but the rehab to return has been extensive.
“I’ve done pretty much everything you need to do as a runner,” said Krieg, who finished second in the state to West Plains’ Riley Simpson in 2020, when there were heavy restrictions to practice and compete because of COVID-19. “Mentally, I’m as strong as I ever have been because when I get out of this injury, I’ll be as strong physically as I’ve been.”
Rehab started 12 weeks ago, with one lap on a track and slowly ramping up. The last time he ran competitively was in the 3,200-meter run during track season.
“They’re looking at my strength – am I favoring one leg, is my mobility the same or has it improved,” Krieg said. “Anybody can come back, as long as you cross-train, bike, swim and do the core work.
“I believe I can set a drastic PR. My pace has been fast on road runs and I have Ian and Tate (Riney) to push me toward that goal. We’re super-young this year. I believe the younger guys can pick up a lot of the slack. They have a close bond like we did with the seniors who just graduated. They’re a younger version of (this year’s) seniors.”
Wright said Krieg’s return is important, especially for his experience handling the pressure of championship expectations. It’s vital he be ready for November.
“We need Cullen, but we don’t need him right away. That’s my philosophy,” Wright said. “The way I handle bringing a kid back is to give them a little stress and see how they handle it. If they don’t handle it well, we pull back. You don’t want to stress Cullen so much that by the end of the season he’s shot. We want to give him the right doses of stress and rest to build what he needs to stay sharp.
“You can have the best plan, but if you don’t follow the nature of the kid, it doesn’t matter.”
Schram has finished eighth and ninth in his two state competitions. Wright said Schram is moving in the direction the coaches want him to move.
“He’s still got some things he needs to learn about racing and a few other aspects, but if we can get him to do what he needs to do that will help us out tremendously,” Wright said.
Every championship team needs a leader who might not be the No. 1 runner, but is the coach’s sounding board and encourages and inspires others. For three years that was Nathan Wolk, who was part of three state champions and made all-state twice. Finding someone to replace the 2022 graduate won’t be easy.
“He was just a little bit out of the limelight, but if I needed something done, he’s the one I’d go to,” Wright said of Wolk. “He knew that was his role as a great leader. At the present time, we’ve only had one race and have so many new athletes, we’ll see who that next person is.”
It might be Riney, who was 23rd at state a year ago and finished one spot behind Schram at Zumwalt in 16:52.80. He can draw inspiration from the Tigers’ recent individual state champions: Drew White (2011), Tyler Gillam (2013), Michael Karls (2014) and Max McDaniel (2018).
“I’m hoping Tate captures that magic that happens for Festus runners at state, and he’s on that path to do something very special,” Wright said. “We gear our runners to have their best races at state.”
Leftwich is Festus girls captain
After winning the Class 3 state championship in 2017, the Tiger girls finished second in 2018, but haven’t been back among the top four teams since.
Last season, Festus came close, placing fifth in Class 4 with 179 points. Of the seven Tigers who ran at Columbia, only two graduated and the other five return.
Junior Riley Vogel was the top Festus runner at state last year, finishing 37th in 20:05.1. Senior captain Ava Leftwich (38th, 20:09.5), senior Jeannie Thornborrow (54th, 20:21.5), junior Abigail Schnable (61st, 20:31.1) and junior Madison Caskanett (64th, 20:31.8) were the other Tigers competing at state.
Festus kicked off 2022 finishing third at the Zumwalt meet with 78 points. Class 5 power Lafayette won the girls race with the top three finishers and 23 points. Senior Dari White was the top Tiger in 12th in 21:37.70. Wright said chronic injuries have slowed down White the previous three seasons.
“It’s tough to win. Our guys have been very fortunate,” Wright said. “We’re looking for the girls to get on the podium. We were fifth last year, but I was very proud of them.”