When Danny Fisher took over the storied Columbus North boys cross-country program from Hall-of-Fame coach Rick Weinheimer five years ago, the Bull Dog program was in a bit of a down cycle.
Winners of five state titles under Weinheimer, North had finished only 13th at state in 2016. Then in Fisher’s first year, the Bull Dogs were 17th in 2017.
The next year, four freshmen entered the program, and they would help return North to its lofty status atop the state’s elite boys cross-country teams.
“When we first joined, our coach was only a couple years into the program, so we kind of had the chance to grow along with him,” senior Will Kiel said. “It kind of grew our team a little bit closer than maybe what would have happened if he had a lot more time under his belt. That kind of allowed us to all grow as one and form this talent that we have.”
Kiel will be competing in his third state finals on Saturday at Terre Haute’s LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course. Reese Kilbarger-Stumpff, Matt Newell and Evan Carr will be running in their fourth.
“Those guys have been the bedrock of everything that we have accomplished and everything we’re going to accomplish in the future,” Fisher said. “They’re definitely the forefathers of my time as a coach, and just as much as we carry on what coach Weinheimer has done, they have kind of carved out their own little way of doing things and continued on that great culture of excellence in their own way. There’s a lot of adjectives and verbs I can say about those guys in a positive way.”
North finished sixth at state when the quartet were freshmen, missing a podium finish by four points. The Bull Dogs finished fourth their sophomore year, then won it all last season.
“They came in as freshmen and kind of set the tone as freshmen,” Fisher said. “They came in fearless. They came in wanting to work hard. They had some lofty goals that I even questioned were possible, and they’re checking those boxes as we speak. It’s great to have them the past four years.”
Those lofty goals that Fisher mentioned haven’t always included winning championships. The runners realized the process was important in achieving results.
“I never really think we set out our end goal to be, ‘Get first at state,’” Newell said. “I think our goal was always to be the best we could be and to improve together and just become a bunch of great athletes. Then, that transpired into, ‘Win state.’ and all the other accomplishments we’re achieved.”
“I think something that set us four up to be leaders of this team that has grown so much and evolved the last four years is, even as freshmen, it was still new for coach Fisher being a coach in this program, and I think our culture was very much, ‘Let’s just put together the best team we can and see where that gets us,’” Carr added. “So I think us four as individuals led our team to not think about results, but think about the process and then luckily, that’s gotten us to a very special position where we are today.”
Newell and Kilbarger-Stumpff were the Bull Dogs Nos. 4 and 5 runners as freshmen, when they were led by three seniors. The next year, they were No. 1 and 2 on the team, with Newell earning All-State honors and Kilbarger-Stumpff missing by one spot.
Last year, Newell missed most of the season with a hamstring injury, returning for the semistate and state meets. Kilbarger-Stumpff assumed the No. 1 role throughout last season, capped by a fourth-place overall finish at state, and has held onto it this year, winning Saturday’s Brown County Semistate.
“We knew we were good,” Kilbarger-Stumpff said. “I don’t think we knew quite what ‘really good’ meant in terms of the future. I think we knew we wanted to win some state titles.”
Newell is back in the No. 2 spot and pushing Kilbarger-Stumpff. Carr has been among North’s top five most of the past three years, and Kiel has normally been the No. 6 or 7 runner.
“I think we knew that there was some talent on this team, obviously,” Kiel said. “But we didn’t know where it would go.”
It’s taken the group to one state championship and has them on the verge of another. North has been ranked No. 1 in the state all season and is the favorite to win its second in a row.
“Just like last year, it’s something entirely new,” Carr said. “It’s a new year and a new race. But I think something that’s helped us is, it is a lot of pressure to be in that No. 1 role, and it’s something we were very wary of. But coming in this year ranked No. 1, we knew that the rankings don’t mean anything, but we also knew that was something we were comfortable with, and it kind of felt like home coming back to that spot.”
As Kilbarger-Stumpff points out, this particular team the Bull Dogs have this season is not defending anything.
“The best thing we can do is be a hard team to beat because there are a lot of other hard teams to beat,” Kilbarger-Stumpff said.
“We are confident that all of us have done what we need to do to prepare as individuals,” Carr added. “As a program, we’ve been there, we have experience and it’s not anything new we need to pull off. But we haven’t proven anything, and we haven’t earned anything yet, so I think we’re still hungry. Winning depends on what other teams do, but being hard to beat kind of internalizes all those expectations and puts it on what you can control, so that’s something we focus on.”
Newell and the rest of the North team is confident they can put together another solid race on Saturday.
“There’s a lot of teams out there that can win state on that day,” Newell said. “So we recognize that, but we accept that we’ve done all the hard work. If we put it all together on one big day, I personally am confident in our ability to win that state meet. So that’s what it comes down to, showing up on the day that matters.”