LIGONIER – West Noble senior Colten Cripe says he feels pretty much the same when he steps to the starting line of a cross country race, at least physically.
“There's a little bit of a difference, just in the mindset, it's like 'wow, I'm really lucky to be here,' ” Cripe said this week, nearly a year removed from a car crash that could have killed him.
Just a week after the 2018 state meet, in which Cripe led the Chargers by finishing 81st, the vehicle he and West Noble tennis player Joel Mast were in was struck in the side by another vehicle while on the way to a basketball game. Their car flipped multiple times, leaving Cripe with a broken pelvis, organ damage and a brain injury.
“At first, we just wanted to him to be alive,” coach Rusty Emmert said. “We had hardly been done celebrating last year's state, and we get that news that he had been in that accident. It just put everything in a new perspective. We doubted if he would ever run again.”
Cripe was not able to return to school full time for months and was still recovering from his injuries during spring track season. But after months of rehabilitation, he came back ready to run this fall. He's competing at the same level he did last year, even setting a 5K personal record of 16 minutes, 18.5 seconds at the New Haven Classic Invitational on Sept. 28.
“I was amazed to watch him, as six months later he started to work out again, and just being amazed that he was running at all,” Emmert said. “He has just worked his tail off to get back to where he is.”
But just as the Chargers were buoyed by Cripe's successful return, they were dealt another blow. Chuck Schlemmer, who had coached West Noble cross country and track teams for 24 years and had remained a teacher at the school after stepping back from coaching in 2017, was struck by a moving truck while riding his bike Aug. 16. He died the following week, and the driver was eventually charged with operating while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident.
“I'm a very driven person, I want my team to be successful and stuff, but when you hear that, it makes you second-guess everything. Is it really that important?” Emmert said. “It makes me appreciate just being here, and making sure (the runners) are enjoying life and hugging their families. The little things that so often we take for granted.”
Emmert said he considered Schlemmer, his former high school coach,to be a friend as well as a mentor. They had attended track clinics, gone fishing together, and Schlemmer would look over Emmert's training plans and offer advice.
“He's one of the toughest people I know,” Emmert said of Schlemmer. “I learned from him that you're going to hurt. Running hurts. And so you can either lie on the couch or you can run despite the pain. He would just go out and do it no matter what.”
The Chargers spent much of the season among the state's top 25, and, though they've fallen out in recent weeks, they won the NECC championship meet Saturday, beating rival Westview.
“They're our arch-nemesis right now, and we have them in sectionals on Saturday, so we're hoping to get the job done there, too,” Cripe said.
The Chargers, like many other cross country teams, are focused on advancing to the state meet. Their fourth through eighth runners have been close in terms of finishes, giving Emmert the difficult task of deciding which seven will run in postseason meets. But they also know better than any other team that the next race is not guaranteed.
“When we're doing our final run-out before the race and the gun goes, we take a moment to pray and thank God for the opportunity to run,” Cripe said. “And once we're done, we say 'For Team Schlem,' for Schlemmer and all those people who can't run.”
Sectional meets with local participants. All meets will be held Saturday at the host school unless otherwise noted.
10:30 a.m. at Ox Bow Park
Bethany Christian, Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Elkhart Central, Elkhart Christian Academy, Goshen, Fairfield, Jimtown, Lakeland Christian Academy, Northridge, NorthWood, Wawasee
Angola, Central Noble, East Noble, Churubusco, DeKalb, Fremont, Eastside, Hamilton, Lakeland, Prairie Heights, West Noble, Westview
Carroll, Columbia City, Bishop Dwenger, Blackhawk Christian, Concordia, North Side, Northrop, Snider, Garrett, Homestead, Lakewood Park Christian, Leo, Whitko
Adams Central, Bellmont, Bluffton, Canterbury, Bishop Luers, South Side, Wayne, Heritage, New Haven, Norwell, Smith Academy for Excellence, South Adams, Woodlan
Blackford, Eastbrook, Huntington North, Madison-Grant, Marion, Mississinewa, Northfield, Oak Hill, Southern Wells, Southwood, Wabash