BOARDMAN — The Woodridge boys cross country team took aim Saturday at a record set by the 2006 team — 19 points to win the regional meet.
The Bulldogs fell just short.
"Very disappointing," coach Jeff Howard joked.
Don’t feel too bad for regional champion Woodridge.
While the Bulldogs couldn’t replicate that historic 1-2-3-4 finish from 2006, they still won the Boardman regional in dominating fashion. Micah Blair and Ryan Champa went 1-2 and Woodridge took five of the top eight spots to finish with 22 points, 73 points ahead of runner-up Bay.
"They want to be the best team in Woodridge history and that ’06 team has set the bar pretty high," Howard said. "This group wants to go on and try to qualify to the national meet in the middle of November, so we’ll see what we do after the state meet, but right now we’re happy to be in Columbus and have a shot to do something in Hebron and try to defend last year’s title."
While some teams struggle coming off a title, the Bulldogs have come out seemingly all season with laser focus.
"I feel like it’s our coach," Blair said. "Coach Howard is a great coach. He’s the one that’s always making sure that we are in our right mindset and that we’re always focused and have our eyes on the prize of what we need to do."
Blair, a senior, had his eyes on the prize Saturday, immediately rocketing to the front of the Division II race.
"I knew the first mile I kind of wanted to just go out to the front, not necessarily take the lead right away, but I wanted to be up in the front group right away and kind of like just sit on the first guy or so," Blair said. "Then, once that first mile marker came through, I was just going to hit a surge and then just try and drop everyone behind me and I think it worked out pretty well."
Blair was the lone Division II runner to finish under 16 minutes — and one of just three runners (with University School’s Justin Iler and St. Ignatius’ Steven Zucca) across all divisions to finish under 16 minutes at Boardman.
"Micah ran an outstanding race," Howard said. "He went out with a purpose and I think he was not afraid to be out there with the top four early and that takes some guts to race like that and that’s the way I think he races best."
After battling injuries earlier in the year, Blair said he feels like he has hit a groove, and is 100%, or as close to 100% as one can be at this point in the season.
"I’m definitely feeling good now," Blair said. "Nothing is bothering me from that. You’re never really 100%, but definitely no injuries."
Champa (16:05.81) finished less than seven seconds after Blair. The Bulldogs junior never flinched even when he dipped into the 25th to 30th range during the race.
"We just have to trust our training," Champa said. "Coach Howard does a great job and you just know who’s going to be where based on you’ve raced these people before and you just got to trust your instincts."
His instincts paid off as he was the regional runner-up.
"Champa continues to run smart like he always does," Howard said. "Collegiate (runners) can do that where they know their bodies well enough that they can go out under control and not panic when you’re 20th, when you know you’re going to finish second or third but you’re 20th. Younger runners often panic in that situation, but Ryan never does."
A prestigious mark like 22 points takes five runners — and the Bulldogs’ brilliant performance was capped by junior Zayd Elkurd (4th, 16:19.92), sophomore Aaron Dutt (7th, 16:37.89) and junior Andrew Lauck (8th, 16:38.13).
"Zayd’s just tough as nails, he continues to be just a power racer that doesn’t look as good as he runs," Howard said. "(Dutt and Lauck) have been running great. They went out right away. Probably at the 1200, they were good to go. At the 1200, they were pretty much established in that top ten and then they just kind of stayed there."
Senior Sam Dutt (28th, 17:13.92) and junior Ryan Lauck (35th, 17:26.43) gave the Bulldogs seven in the top 35.
"I think the biggest factor is the seven and eight of us on the line every week and each one of us wants to make it and we all really have that driving passion to get there," Champa said. "Then, also there’s 30-some guys and 30-some girls and I think every single one of them wants us to make it and is in our corner."
The Woodridge girls advanced to state, too, despite not having any individual runners in the Division II top 20.
Senior Libby Howard led the Bulldogs with a 22nd-place finish (20:00.64) while junior Anastasia Bakuhn "ran awesome," per Howard, for a 25th-place finish (20:14.46).
Howard used the same "ran awesome" description for sophomore Leighton Kline and junior Elise Carey, who finished back-to-back for 35th and 36th, respectively.
The success of their 3-4-5 runners allowed the Bulldogs to take fifth with 138 points Saturday despite sophomore Izzy Best (39th, 20:41.33) and Libby Howard not having their best races.
"Our 3-4-5 really ran well," Howard said. "Libby and Izzy ran average. They didn’t run great. They ran OK and we were really fortunate to get through, so we did well."
Freshman Joy McFarland (61st, 21:07.65) and junior Leah Ziegler (75th, 21:28.25) gave the Bulldogs seven in the top 75.
"If we run perfect, we’re up on the podium, I think, but the bottom line is we always say to the girls, ‘Today, sixth is first,’ and we were fifth," Howard said. "We just want to get through and have a shot to run next week."
As for next week, Howard said the Bulldogs girls have a solid shot at a top-10 finish at the state meet.
While Granville (1st, 50 points at the Pickerington Regional) and Lexington (1st, 30 points at the Tiffin Regional) might be impossible to catch, he noted Woodridge beat Boardman regional champion Beaumont earlier in the season.
He also noted how tight the team standings were Saturday with Woodridge (138) within striking distance of all four teams in front of it: Poland Seminary (126), Tallmadge (114), SVSM (112) and Beaumont (108).
"If you feel like you can compete with all the teams in your region that’s a good start and nobody here dominated us," Howard said. "If we can get a top 10 finish, we’d be really happy with that."