When you're the reigning champion with six of last year's top seven runners back, you're no longer the "surprising" team, you're "the" team.
You're also a challenged team and a pressured team, and not always because of the competition. That's something Seneca East has battled since taking the boys Division III state cross country crown in 2012
"You win the ultimate high and you think you can continue to do that and the pressure to continue to do that, year in and year out, I can see why those [coaches] get the gray hairs," Seneca East coach Doug Mason said.
Seneca East runners Wes Pipher (left) and Jared Stockmaster compete at the Division III Regional in Youngstown last week. Stockmaster finished fifth, Pipher 10th. Both will be running at Saturday’s Division III state meet.
"You definitely feel the pressure, there's no doubt about it," he said. "Hopefully the kids are a little more resilient than adults or maybe handle it better and keep it in perspective.
"We're just excited to have an opportunity to run for a state title," Mason said. "You may get this once or twice in your lifetime as a coach and you just want to make the most of it. But however it turns out, it turns out; whatever's going to happen, is going to happen. We're just hoping for the best."
The Tigers have definitely faced challenges to get that chance:
n An incoming freshman whom Mason thought would contend for a varsity spot was injured in a sledding accident in the winter.
n Junior Jared Stockmaster suffered a broken arm in farm accident.
n Senior Jason Willman learned he had a stress fracture in his foot a few days after he and the Tigers both claimed titles at the Tiffin Carnival, hobbling him until the regional meet.
n Even a trip to run in a meet at Gettysburg, Pa., fell a bit flat when the government shutdown kept the team from visiting the battlefield's national park.
"Nothing this season has been easy at all. It's been an obstacle. Some days I dread coming to school. It's been a lot of challenges, a lot of hurdles, a lot of obstacles. And there's the pressure that's there," Mason said. "It's something we've pretty much dealt with all season long and we're coming down to the final week."
But success has also been there.
Stockmaster took over the team's No. 1 spot after Willman's injury and has turned in a superb season.
"He's kind of really a freak when it comes to running. He's still figuring this whole thing out," Mason said.
"But he's really blossomed into a big-time runner for us, filling that void when Jason went down with the injury, and we're going to really need him to continue that, to be up near the front," he said. "And he has the chance to be up in that top three, four runners in the race; we're going to really need him to be."
Him and others. But then, that's how the Tigers operate.
Junior twins Wes and Carson Pipher haven't been too far behind Stockmaster all fall, with the three going 1-2-3 to lead Seneca East to the district crown.
While it's nice to have Stockmaster lead the way, Mason said the twins have definitely done their job, even if they don't have that stereotypical cross country runner look.
"You look at them, they don't necessarily look like runners, but they're some of the most competitive kids," Mason said. "They have a fire to them, that they refuse to lose, and that's something I can't coach. They just have it.
"You look at them; they don't much physically look like runners, but good luck trying to beat them in anything, whether it's running, playing ping pong or whatever, they just have that competitiveness," he said. "They would be very good football players, they'd be very good at whatever the did because they have that competitiveness to them. And what's nice is that spills over to some of the other kids on the team that don't necessarily have that ultra-competitiveness to them."
One who does, though, is Willman, who returned to the lineup last week. After a month away, the senior merely finished ninth in the regional to help the team take second - four points behind champion Maplewood and 13 ahead of McDonald.
"He's very naturally talented as a runner and such a determined kid. Probably one of the reasons he gets injured from stress fractures is he just pushes his body to the limit," said Mason, who added Willman was back in a walking boot two days later.
"The foot is still fractured, but you're not going to take him away from this race. If this was a football team, he'd be one of toughest kids in the area; he just happens to be a distance runner," he said. "He's basically running on a fractured foot and he's just going to try to gut out one more race for us."
Junior Michael Szabo, junior Bryce Watson and senior Robby Schaffer round out the team seeking back-to-back state titles in what Mason said should be a tightly-contested race between the Tigers, Maplewood and McDonald.
That's because all three teams' individuals should clog the top spots, Mason said, unlike in past years when several teams would have top runners which would allow for a little separation in the scoring.
"It's really scary. We could actually put all four of our top runners up on that podium and not win this," Mason said. "In most given years, you'd be, like, 'they should win the state title hands down.' But what's different this year, there's not as many top runners on all these teams going to state, except for those teams we're battling, Maplewood and McDonald.
"So the advantage we have with our top four being so good doesn't necessarily get us enough points separating us from those guys," he said. "We can put our top four up there near their 1 and 2, but there's not enough guys from the other teams that are going to add points to [Maplewood and McDonald]."
Mason said the competition should be so fierce that it's possible for a handful of Tigers to gain All-Ohio status, something none of them did last year, and the team not repeat as champions.
"It's strange. How do you go one year of not putting a guy on the podium at all [and winning the title], and this year there's the possibility of putting two, three, maybe four on there and not winning it," he said. "It's just how things play out some years."