Nov. 3—TUSCOLA — Before the First to the Finish Invitational on Sept. 9 in Peoria, the Tuscola boys' cross-country team played a game of rock, paper, scissors.
Jackson Barrett won the game, and a little more than 15 minutes later, he was crossing the line first for an individual race victory.
It could have been any of the Warriors, though. Two-tenths of a second behind Barrett was Josiah Hortin, seven-tenths behind Hortin was Blake McLeese and another seven-tenths behind McLeese was Will Foltz. Tuscola runners finished first through fourth for the first time in program history, taking the team race win by more than 150 placement points.
"That was a fun race," McLeese said. "It's fun to be with your teammates and see the crowd kind of shocked that you're going one, two, three and four."
Back to that game of rock, paper, scissors for a second.
The Warriors knew they were going to be at the front of the pack — that lead group of four finished 10 seconds ahead of the next runner — and they needed a way to decide who was going to win. Barrett won the game, so he won the race.
"It's really rare for any competitor, let alone high school athletes, to care enough about their teammates that they'll sacrifice their own glory for each other's," Tuscola coach Neil Garrison said. "That's the type of character you want to have all the time coaching, and this year has been amazing to have those guys."
The Warriors have had those kinds of finishes all season, and it's not just those four guys. Depending on the day, Xander Neamtu has been right up there with them. As a team, they've won every race this season, with their lead pack all finishing within two seconds of one another four times. Tuscola heads into Saturday's Class 1A state meet at Detweiller Park with legitimate hopes of securing a state title after racing to a sectional championship in Decatur and a regional title in Sullivan each of the last two weekends.
"I'm fortunate to have them on so many levels," Garrison said. "When they're winning, it's a coach's dream. When they're not winning, it's still great because they have such fun personalities, they're such hard workers and they have the kind of character you want in an athlete. Even if they weren't winning, they'd still make it a fun season. The fact that they are is just icing on the cake."
That success has started with the seniors: Barrett, Hortin and Foltz. Garrison said they've taken leadership to the next level, highlighted by their work ethic, which has taken their abilities to the next level.
"A lot of times, your leaders are your most talented kids," Garrison said. "What's special about these guys is, despite being extremely talented, they're also the hardest workers."
The seniors set the tone. They ran together all summer. They ran extra after practices started in August. They did extra workouts outside of school. They act like older brothers to the younger runners, and the underclassmen have followed every step.
"I'm always trying to chase them down," said Neamtu, a junior.
"They push us in practice and workouts," said McLeese, a sophomore. "They help us a lot and motivate us in races, telling us to stay on them and not fall off. ... It pushes you to go faster. You want to beat them so you get bragging rights and they know you can win."
All five of Tuscola's lead runners — Barrett, Hortin, Foltz, McLeese and Neamtu — ran at last year's state meet, where they finished 12th as a team. That was the first time the Warriors had ever qualified for state, and it made them hungry to get back this year.
Neamtu said that experience prepared them for what they'll hopefully see again this year, which is a loud environment packed with fans.
"Last year, the goal was to make it to state because they hadn't before. That's a hard mental barrier in a sense of you've never done it, so it's stressful," Garrison said. "They did the work, and it really set them up for this year to take the next step. They did a great job last year, but I think now they know they can go higher."
Garrison has been instilling that confidence in his runners all year. He gives a daily speech in the locker room, which Neamtu jokingly said will last about 20 minutes before McLeese upped it to 25.
Even the community is starting to take notice. Tuscola cross-country might not be getting the same attention as the football team, but teachers, classmates and community members are asking about the Warrior runners. And they may be hearing about them for some time depending what happens Saturday in Peoria.
"He brings up that we can be great, and he just pushes us to be great," Neamtu said of Garrison. "He thinks we can get to a level, and we just have to believe it."