Jeep standout runs to her own style

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Northeast Dubois senior Latesha Merkel, right, led a section of the pack during Tuesday’s sectional, and Saturday, she’ll lead the Jeeps into Saturday’s regional at Crawford County along with other local teams. Merkel has led the Jeeps in every race this season and has done so through her own style, with an unorthodox running form and penchant for wearing goofy clothes after races.  

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

When Latesha Merkel runs, it’s no thing of beauty.

As she tires, her body and head bob side to side. Her high-swinging arms flail. Her coach, Vic Betz, diplomatically says “it’s not pretty.”

“It’s pretty bad,” Merkel admits. “We joke it’s called the Sasquatch form.”

Merkel reveals all this with a smile that never droops. So what if she has choppy form? The Northeast Dubois cross country runner is superbly secure in everything she does, whether it’s her funky but frontrunning style, or wearing Cookie Monster pajama pants after meets while others cover up with more sporty threads.

There’s a whole lot of miles between Merkel as a freshman and Merkel as a senior. The apprehension she once felt has faded for a girl whom Betz now calls “a pretty easy leader.”

“I used to be a lot quieter and a lot more reserved when I was younger, and probably still as a freshman. But we had a really good group of seniors, and they helped me. I think that really did help me kind of develop into who I am,” Merkel says.

“I’ve seen freshmen really get more comfortable with who they are. I notice people grow into themselves a lot more, because we’re very accepting of each other on the team, and you can be whoever you want to be. ... We just always have a lot of fun, so that motivates me to run, to do it for my team.”

You can usually find her out in front, serving as the Jeeps’ compass.

“If Latesha is running bad, I almost guarantee you the whole team runs bad,” Betz says, “because they key off of her.”

But the thing is, the forecast usually calls for a 100 percent chance of Merkel posting a solid run.

As local teams gear up for Saturday’s regional at Crawford County, Merkel has registered the top time for her team at every meet this season — including the Jeep Invitational and Blue Chip Conference race at season’s end when sickness zapped some of her strength.

But Merkel just runs and runs and runs, because it’s both in the blood and always on her brain.
She tried just about everything else — soccer, softball, volleyball, gymnastics — but didn’t feel a dexterity for anything else. The track season in the spring, she admits, is layover time to stay in shape for cross country season.

Her father, Mike, who ran at Indiana State University and has completed a handful of marathons, began going on runs with Latesha when she was in fifth grade. Older brother Ethan, a 2006 Northeast Dubois graduate, was also a Division I runner at the University of Evansville. And in Latesha’s first races as a freshman, everyone could notice the familial link.

Not by the last name, Latesha jokes, but because she and Ethan share similar gait.
“The same beautiful style,” she jokes.

“As soon as I would start running in high school, mom and dad would tell me that people would come up and be like, ”˜That’s Ethan’s little sister, isn’t it? She runs exactly like him.’ It’s weird, because my dad, as he puts it, ran like a gazelle. He ran beautifully.”

Latesha has attempted to discard some of the bad habits this season, making an attempt to swing her arms more and stand more upright. Betz doesn’t meddle with her form too much, noting that when runners fatigue late in races, they usually revert to their hard-wired inclinations, anyway.

Betz cares more about a different trait anyway, as Merkel has “taken a lot more serious look at running” in the last year or two, he said.

Merkel’s mom, Denise, once revealed to Betz that she wished Latesha took cross country half as seriously as Ethan did. For Latesha, the sport has always been fun. But now, her coach has noticed that she’s racing and not merely running.

“Latesha was running along, it looked like she didn’t have a care in the world,” Betz says of Merkel, who upgraded her sectional finish from 12th last year to fourth this season. “But this year, she’s really putting every ounce of effort into her race. In that sense, she’s changed.”

One thing that’s stood is her goofy garb.

Merkel recently acquired a new pair of sweatpants, but before that, she subbed out pajama pants adorned with Cookie Monster heads. And this year she’s got the eye of the tiger — or at least the face. During a summer trip to Holiday World, she bought a knit cap with a tiger face and floppy tiger ears, which teammate Rachel Breitwieser said “always makes my day, seeing her wear that.” And she busted it out with regularity at meets early in the season, pulling her hair down and donning the cap after races — even early in the season when the hat’s warmth kept sweat trickling off her head.

“I brought it to a meet one time, and we did really well that meet, and I’m like, ”˜You know what, maybe it’s the tiger power,’” Merkel says. “I decided I would wear it to every meet. It’ll probably be broken out again at regional.”

The Jeeps will be fine if the status quo remains for Saturday. Merkel will probably be out front, and make a fashion statement or two along the way. She’s comfortable doing both. It’s why she runs, and it’s why she’s savoring the final strides of her high school career.

“Probably 95 percent of it is the team aspect,” she says of her passion for cross country. “A lot of sports, they’re like, ”˜We’re a family,’ but I’ve been in a lot of different sports, and cross country is the first sport where I’m really like, 'These people are my family.' I really, really love these people and I love being around them.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com