As Ben Rankin ran varsity for the Columbus North boys cross-country team the past two years, he learned a little bit about being a frontrunner by watching the Bull Dogs’ leaders.
First, it was Andy Carr and Kaden Eaton in 2013, then Seth Williams and Chase Ballard last year. All four of those former All-State performers are now running in college, the latter three at the Division I level.
Now that it’s his turn to lead, Rankin knows what to do.
“It’s weird because I’m used to looking up to people,” said Rankin, now a senior. “I guess I need to use their example and be a leader. I learned a lot from the seniors before me, especially Chase, Seth, Kaden and Andy. I learned no matter how you feel, you have to run your hardest and stay positive.”
Last year, Rankin was North’s No. 3 runner behind Williams and Ballard.
“I think he has the potential to be a good frontrunner,” North coach Rick Weinheimer said. “We have a lot of season left, so just a little bit each time would be good to see.
“He’s a really good racer,” he said. “He’s a competitive young man, so his competitive spirit adds to everybody else’s competitive spirit. So he’s not necessarily what I would call a vocal leader, but he’s a good leader by doing the right things and because he races hard.”
That competitiveness was on display in Tuesday’s season-opener against Martinsville at Ceraland. Battling a cold, Rankin won his first varsity cross-country race in his high school career.
“Everyone’s been under the weather on this team,” Rankin said. “But we ran our hardest, and it turned out all right.”
Rankin broke free from a pack of teammates late in the 5,000-meter (3.1-mile) race to win in 16 minutes, 42 seconds, one second ahead of teammates Chandler Steward and Justin Spoon.
“It was really exciting because we had a big pack together,” Rankin said. “Chase (McQueen) and Chandler and I were together a lot, and then Elijah (Brooks) and Justin Spoon did well today.
“We were a little nervous this meet because we didn’t know how it was going to go,” he said. “Now, we know where we are. We know we can run hard.”
That race turned out a little better for Rankin than his last one. He was the No. 1 seed going into the Connersville Regional in the 1,600 meters in track, but finished fifth.
“Experience has so much to do with that, and that was his first experience in a track regional,” Weinheimer said. “I think he was taken aback by how fast they went out, pace-wise, and it surprised him. I think his cross-country experience is going to help him. He has a little better idea how it all plays out.”
“I just want to make this year better,” Rankin said. “Coach told me, ‘Just run hard and be a training leader for the season.'”
Rankin hopes to follow in the footsteps of his former leaders and run at the collegiate level. His top choice is Grace College.
Saturday morning, Rankin and the Bull Dogs will try to win Conference Indiana titles on Terre Haute’s LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course that hosts the state finals.
“I feel like I have a shot,” Rankin said. “Terre Haute North has a really good guy, and so does Bloomington South, so there’s going to be some good competition. It’s going to be fun.”
“I think there’s a good chance he’ll be right in that lead pack,” Weinheimer said.
Rankin hopes to earn All-State honors with top-25 finish in the state finals Oct. 31. He finished 37th last year in a personal-best 16:04.4.
“I thought he ran his best race of the year last year at the state meet, so we’re excited that’s how this season will turn out, also,” Weinheimer said.
“I’m hoping to go 15:30 for my 5K, and I’m hoping the other guys will come with me, and maybe we can get a title at state,” Rankin said.
What: Conference Indiana boys and girls cross-country meet
When: 9 a.m. Saturday
Where: LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, 599 S. Tabortown Rd., Terre Haute
Teams: Columbus North, Bloomington North, Bloomington South, Franklin Central, Perry Meridian, Southport, Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South