Lady Eagles expectations grow in return to state

   No longer is it just about being there. Been there, done that.
   Now the No. 17 Columbia City Lady Eagles head to the Indiana high school cross country state finals Saturday wanting more than just the experience.
   “We’re more focused this year,” senior Samantha Engle said. “Last year it was great just to make it.”
   A year after reaching the state finals for the first time since 1986 as a team, the Lady Eagles field individual sectional and regional champions among their top seven runners.
   After battling injures and health issues throughout the season, Columbia City is at full strength for its return. The addition of senior Laken Lefever in the last two races has the Lady Eagles bringing back four runners from a team that placed 16th at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute last season.
   “This year is really a whole different level,” Lefever stated. “Last year we were just so excited to make it. This year we feel like we can compete with the best teams. We might not have been like that at the beginning of the season but we’ve grown a lot stronger.”
   Lefever comes off an injury that kept her out for much of the season after she finished 43rd at state.
   Fellow senior Renee Menzie heads back to state with an individual sectional title after earning all-state honors with her 22nd-place finish in 2009. For some, the atmosphere of state can intimidate but Menzie doesn’t see it that way.
   “It’s just a new experience,” Menzie noted.
   With Lefever out much of the season, Menzie found a new running mate at the front of the pack.
   Freshman Samantha Roush has led a talented freshman class that includes three runners in the Lady Eagles top seven runners. After taking second to Menzie in the Marion sectional, Roush switched with her senior counterpart, much like she has all season, winning the Marion regional race.
   “The seniors knew coming in that this was the year,” Columbia City head coach Bob Fahl said. “That included getting Samantha Roush. But it wasn’t like that’s all we had. We had eight strong.
   “I knew because I’ve been around here long enough that these kind of kids don’t come around that often. Singles and doubles, yes. But not a whole team.”
   The senior-freshmen combination on the team is a unique one. In any given race you’ll see a Lady Eagle senior with a freshman near by.
   Menzie has Roush while freshman Brooke Werstler has moved into the three spot finishing 20th at semistate with a personal best time of 19:20.
   Werstler has sophomore Carlee Hearld and Lefever in the mix with her.
   Senior Samantha Engle has seen her share of freshmen running with her at the No. 5 spot with both Erin Knepple and Heather Shew filling in voids during the season.
   “They kind of have a grip on running now and know the training and they can go from there,” Engle said.
   It’s more than 20 years since the Lady Eagles have been among the best the state has to offer in back-to-back seasons.
   Now, Columbia City is aiming to go down as the best team to run at state trying to beat the school record of eighth-place as a team.
   “I think it’s really pushing us to think that we could really be the best team Columbia City has ever had,” Lefever said.
   What is it about this team that makes them so great?
   “The chemistry is good,” Fahl said. “Real good.”
   “We all kind of push each other,” Lefever noted. “Everyone has the same attitude. We’re not like some other people where ‘I just want it to be over.’ We don’t have that.”