Friday, November 13th, 2009
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Fort Recovery made history in 1996
When head coach Carl Moeller arrived at Fort Recovery High School in the early 1990s, the boys cross country program he took over was in pretty meager shape.
Within a few years, though, the atmosphere casually transformed, as the Indians crept their way up the Midwest Athletic Conference ladder before capturing their first league title in 1995.
They concluded the season with a ninth-place finish at the state meet in Columbus, and with a strong bevy of returners for the 1996 campaign, hope and optimism ran strong throughout the Indians' lineup as the season kicked off in the late summer.
"I remember one day that summer we were running what we called the "three-mile loop" and Phil Ranly brought up the idea of winning state," commented Matt Heitkamp, a senior on the squad that season. "I didn't take him serious and then he just started running faster and that really stuck with me. It wasn't until we won the Celina Invitational to start that year that I thought we had a realistic shot of winning it all - especially after defeating Anna, the defending state champions, by quite a few points in that meet."
As the season unfolded, the Indians built up another head of steam and won their second MAC title with a record 47-point margin over runner-up Delphos St. John's.
The win earned the Indians the distinction of being named the number-one team in Division III, another first for the Fort Recovery program. Coldwater staged the district meet a week later and Fort Recovery captured the district title, placing five runners in the top 11 with Ranly placing fourth in a time of 17:05.
"I remember that we steadily hit our stride all season long, but we didn't gain our number-one ranking until right at the end of the year before district started," recalled Ranly, now a chemical engineer in Philadelphia. "We finished the year unbeaten, but at districts, we only beat sixth-rated Crestview by two points and it cost us our top ranking heading into regional. Another thing I remember about the district race was that Scott Will gave blood that week. As good-hearted of a person as Scott was, that just wasn't the best idea before running for a distance. He didn't have his best showing, but thankfully we still squeaked by."
Following their tight victory in Coldwater, it was on to regional competition in Troy, where the Indians responded by widening their gap over second-place Crestview to capture the regional crown with 76 points. Fort Recovery placed five runners in the top 30, with junior Matt Roessner leading the charge with his 11th-place finish.
"Our goal all season long was to be the best that we could be and of course win," Ranly remarked. "To accomplish this, we had to literally log hundreds of miles in training. We were all competitors, but it was all about winning as a team first. We were all so close in skill, and it was expected for us to push each other in practice and in competition."
The final destination of the year for the Indians was once again Scioto Downs in Columbus, where they hoped to watch their season-long dream sprout to life. As the race developed, Roessner, Ranly, Heitkamp, and Nate Ontrop each shaved at least 15 seconds from their district and regional times, and the effort was enough to give them a 14-point cushion over Attica Seneca East.
With Ontrop as their top finisher in the 21st slot, the Indians were soon hoisting the Division III state championship trophy over their heads after completing the campaign with an overall record of 162-0.
"I remember before the state meet how relaxed we were and I never worried about not having confidence in my teammates," explained Will, who is currently a physician's assistant in Uganda, assisting in construction of a medical clinic. "The night before the state race we went to Chuck E. Cheese to relax. I remember eating pizza, playing Whac-A-Mole, and crawling through all of the tunnels. As much as we loved to run and as focused as we were, we still loved to have fun. We prayed together that night and woke up refreshed and ready to run the next day."
Will added, "Winning the title is something that I cannot accurately describe. I have never felt those emotions since and maybe it is something I never will. I have accomplished a lot in life since then, but on that day we - the Fort Recovery cross country team - won a state title and completed an undefeated season."
With the championship, the Indians became the first MAC team to capture a state title in the sport - a feat that no boy's team has achieved since.
Heitkamp's humble explanation is rather simple.
"In the MAC, football rules. If Marion Local, Coldwater, St. Henry, and Minster weren't such football powerhouses back then, they would also have state titles in cross country. We were just too scrawny and uncoordinated to play football, so we ran!"
As an encore to their remarkable season in 1996, the Indians again captured the conference title in 1997, but fell short of a state championship later in the year after finishing in third place at Scioto Downs.
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