By BRETT MARSHALL
It's difficult to imagine that a team can perform under the radar for nearly an entire season despite the fact that it was the runner-up in its sport in 2011 and has three state championships to its credit and now 14 consecutive appearances at the state meet.
But that's exactly what the Holcomb Longhorns boys cross country team has done for much of the 2012 season.
Until this most recent Saturday at the Class 3A regional meet in Cimarron, when the Longhorns strung together their best performance of the year in claiming the team title with 60 points, just ahead of Norton (64) and 15 points in front of Great West Activities Conference member Scott City (75).
With that regional trophy safely tucked away, the Longhorns and veteran coach Lindall Cox now can turn their attention to Saturday's state meet in Lawrence at the always-tough Rim Rock Farm layout, designed by former Kansas University cross country and track and field coach Bob Timmons.
The layout is generally regarded as one of the outstanding facilities in the United States, designed specifically for cross country and is as demanding as they come.
Last year, with Brendan Thomas leading the way, the Longhorns came in a distant second to Wichita The Independent. This time, however, Cox sees the team chase as a wide open competition amongst about five schools — Hutchinson Trinity, Wellsville, Norton, Scott City and his Longhorns.
"We all have about equal teams and if we ran 10 times, you might have 10 different orders of finishes," Cox said of the upcoming state race.
The key for the Longhorns' regional victory was that it was just the third time all season that he had his varsity runners intact.
Different runners struggled through injuries and illness at different times of the year, and in other meets, Cox rested certain runners.
"We backed them off, wanting to make sure everybody was as healthy as they could be for regional and state," Cox said. "We never really talk about winning, we just focus on qualifying and then going to state and running our very best."
Leading the way at the regional was senior Misal Banderas, whose eighth-place finish was the only top 10 effort for the Longhorns.
From that position, though, the Longhorns performed well and it is that depth, combined with close "packing," that allowed Holcomb to capture the team title. Caleb Stewart was 10th, Ian Rupp was 11th, Ethan Forsen took 17th and Tayler Chelemedos placed 19th. Those finishes by the fourth and fifth runners were critical to the team standings and they will once again be the same for Saturday's state meet.
"I've said all along that the keys to our success in the past, and the keys to what we do Saturday, will be in how our fourth, fifth, sixth runners perform," Cox said. "We're not as strong at the top as we've perhaps been in some years, but it's the depth that will pay off if we are to finish on the podium and bring home a trophy."
Banderas and Stewart are the lone seniors on the team, while Rupp and Chelemdos are juniors. Gustavo Tapia is a sophomore and Forsen is a freshman.
"We've run against these teams so we really know where the competition is coming from," Cox said. "We ran it (Rim Rock) well last year, so we have good memories of what it takes to do that again."
Losing four of the top five runners to graduation a year ago provided Cox with one of his top rebuilding challenges, and the highly-successful coach once again found just enough runners to develop them through the regular season.
"To be able to put it back together and see these kids succeed has been a lot of fun," Cox said. "It's to their credit. They've really stepped it up and I think they'll be right in the hunt on Saturday. Our plan every year is to peak at state. We will be physically and mentally ready and they'll leave it all out on the course."
The Class 3A boys will run at noon while the 3A girls, with Cimarron's team qualified, will run at 10:30 a.m.
Notes: Scott City will be paced on the boys side by Joey Meyer, eighth individually a year ago while the Beavers team placed sixth, will lead his team again. Other Scott City runners include Edi Balderrama, Luke Minnix, Heath Briggs, Irvin Lozano, Dylan Hutchins and Miguel Chavez.
On the girls side, Cimarron's team is comprised of Kari Blattner, Isabelle Koopman, Joisan Smith, Karina Zamora and Cortney Toothaker. Also qualifying from area schools in 3A girls were Chelsi Hess and Taylor George of Scott City, and Lakin's Alex Martinez.