Tribune Chronicle: Maplewood's boys state meet streak not a given

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By John Vargo on August 10, 2008 from the Tribune Chronicle

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series highlighting the longest current cross country streaks in not only Trumbull County, but the state. The series will lead up to the beginning of the season. The McDonald boys and girls teams, which have qualified for the state tournament since 1999, will be featured the next two weeks.

The state cross country meet in Columbus and the Maplewood boys cross country team has been almost synonymous since 1990.

But for the Rockets, it's more than the foregone conclusion.

''I never dreamed that there would be a streak of any kind. We had battled every year to try to get to state and in my first four years of coaching at Maplewood (1986-89) we qualified twice ('87 and '88) and didn't qualify twice ('86 and '89),'' coach Ted Rupe said. ''Qualifying is very difficult and for me to think in 1990 that we would continue to qualify more than half of the years would have been overly presumptuous.

''In fact, one of the drawbacks of the streak has been that far too many people have come to think that qualifying to the state championships is easy. That is both false and a dangerous assumption. We have been able to maintain the streak because every year. We make certain that we emphasize the difficulty in accomplishing that goal.''

Girls cross country coach Dave Deeter, who was a senior on that 1990 team, knows the importance of the streak's longevity.

''It means a lot to know the guys have continued the tradition. People coming up look at that and that's what keeps our tradition going,'' said Deeter, who also is the school's athletic director and track coach. ''A streak is something that definitely can keep itself going through because other people look at it and say, 'Hey, I want to go to state year after year after year.' It's entertaining to them. It's something they want to be involved with.''

No year signifies the strength of the streak than the 2004 season. That year, Maplewood took a devastating blow. The team's top two runners - sophomores Andy Arnio and Andy Morgan - were out for the season because of an off-the-course incident. Arnio, as a freshman, finished a surprising third at Scioto Downs to lead the Rockets to the 2003 Division III state championship. It left Rupe with a group of runners willing to do whatever it took to keep the state streak alive.

''The 2004 season was one that was filled with highs and lows. We had won the state championships in 2002 and 2003 so there were high expectations. We started out running great but early on lost our top two runners for the season which left in doubt whether we could qualify for the state meet,'' Rupe said. ''Even though the goal had shifted from placing high at state to trying to qualify, the work to accomplish that goal wasn't any less. We had some runners that never thought that they would be good enough to score for the team step up and do a job that seemed impossible. We had finished fourth at districts - only a couple points away from not qualifying for the regionals, and then we got third at regionals to advance to state. The guys on that team deserve a great deal of credit for never giving up, even when things looked very bleak.

''I'm not sure that I've ever experienced such a feeling of accomplishment in my entire coaching career as I did that day at Boardman.''

Ask Justin Pykare, who was one of those runners pushing Maplewood to the 2004 state meet - a feat no one but the team and Rupe thought possible.

The Rockets finished 13th.

''My junior year, when we didn't have the Andys there, was probably, I think, one of the greatest accomplishments I was part of,'' Pykare said. ''Everybody had counted us out. It was a great motivator for the next year when we stepped up and won the state championship. It was a great motivator to make us train hard that summer.''

During the 2005 season, Maplewood won the school's fifth state championship and fourth Division III title. In 1972, the Rockets won their first title (Class A) led by Rupe. He was the top team runner. Then, there was a winner in the individual and team categories in each classification.

Arnio gave the school its first individual state champion since Rupe and Morgan's kick in the last quarter mile pushed him to runner-up status.

''Arnio winning the state championship, and Morgan being runner-up was very satisfying in 2005,'' Rupe said. ''I had taken some criticism for being able to produce state championship teams but not state championship individuals. That was wiped out that day when Arnio and Morgan crossed the finish line in first and second. And to give an idea of the importance of team and individual success, as I walked up to Arnio in the chute and congratulate him for winning, his reply was 'Yeah, but how did the team do?'

''Developing a team atmosphere is one of the most important parts of making a great team and one of the most challenging. Great teams are often brought down by great individuals or great coaches who place their successes above the teams.''

Winning a state title for Arnio during this streak is only a fragment of what it means to be a Maplewood runner.

''Nothing. It's nothing compared to winning a team championship,'' he said in a 2007 interview. ''I mean, it's a great accomplishment but winning as a team has always been more important to me. We all made it happen. It makes me feel proud to be part of such a great group of guys the last four years and no matter where our paths go after graduation, the bond we have will be there forever. It's been a fun run.''

In addition to Maplewood's streak, McDonald and Girard helped account for Trumbull County's nine-year title run. All were in Division III except for Girard's Division II title in 1998. There were also six state runner-ups in that time - streak started in 1997 and ended in 2006.

''The nine-year streak of state champion teams from Trumbull County would certainly be hard to match by any other county in any sport. ... That is certainly unprecedented in a state with 88 counties,'' Rupe said.

Also what is unprecedented is Rupe's coaching. Ask his son, Craig, who ran for the University of Akron.

''I think the reason my dad has been so successful throughout his tenure at Maplewood is that he finds ways to get the most out of his runners, and in a lot of cases he gets more out of his runners than what anybody expects," Craig Rupe said. "I, for example, was terrible in junior high and as a freshman and never would've thought I would be able to accomplish what I have. I think just about all the guys that have gone through the program have felt as if the team was a second family and they have thought as my dad as also being their dad in certain ways. Because of him, guys have fallen in love with cross country and they are motivated to do whatever it takes to make the team the most successful it can be. The guys that I have ran with at Maplewood were some of the most dedicated individuals, and I think they feed off of the motivation of my dad.''

Dave Pykare, a former Rocket runner, helped coach Maplewood during the 2007 season and is now in the seminary.

''Coach Rupe is one of the most selfless people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,'' he said. ''He has impacted the lives of several young men, and that is exactly why I have always entertained the thought of coaching. I love working with young people, and cross country has a way of teaching us traits like perseverance, self-discipline and goal setting. All these things are included in Ted's program at Maplewood. If I can be a 'Ted Rupe' in the life of one of my runners over the course of my career I will be more successful than most.''

Maplewood's program, more than the runners and coaches, is rooted in deep tradition that has carried it to state since the 1990 season.

''The tradition that is at Maplewood, through cross country, is very vivid,'' Justin Pykare said. ''You can see it through a lot of people. Whenever you hear Maplewood, people associate it with cross country because we don't have football team and cross country is probably one of our biggest sports.

''I always told myself I wouldn't be on the team that lost the streak of making it to state. It's in everybody's mind that they don't want to be part of that team and they want to keep the tradition going for the past and future runners of Maplewood.''

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