Cats keep it squirrely along journey

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Noelle Weyer, left, Rachael Welch, Grace Mehringer, Sydney Berger and Emily Uebelhor hammed it up for photos after the Wildcats captured the sectional championship Oct. 15. Saturday, the Wildcats will run in the state finals at Terre Haute, and they’ve made their first trek to the state meet since 2006 thanks to a heavy dose of goofy camaraderie.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

The Jasper girls cross country team just runs along. Month after month. Mile after mile. Nothing changes. Because running is boring.

But then Grace Mehringer and Noelle Weyer spot a squirrel. They add it to the tally they’ve been keeping in their heads. Once, they counted 30 squirrels on a jaunt.

Right behind them, Luci Hulsman is singing “Blurred Lines” into Lauren Rennie’s ear as she strides beside her. Hulsman urges Rennie to sing along.

“I know you want it,” Hulsman recites from the song.

“I won’t stop until she sings with me,” Hulsman says. “I’m like, ”˜C’mon Rennie, sing with me!’”

Occasionally, she will.

“Just to get her to shut up,” Rennie explains. “I don’t like to sing when I run.”

“Maybe that means you need to run more,” Wildcat coach Kevin Schipp slings at Rennie.

“Ohhh!!!” erupt the rest of the Wildcats, who sit in a circle on a rainy Thursday afternoon before an indoor practice.

Then it becomes blatantly clear amid the chaos, the truths and the laughter. To think running with this group of Wildcats is a dull, insipid and colorless event couldn’t be further from the truth.

As Schipp explains, those positive vibes — however zany they might be — are a crucial ingredient in Jasper’s recipe for success this season, which has led them to Saturday’s state finals in Terre Haute. It’s the first time since 2006 the Wildcat girls team has made it this far.

“There’s no complaints in practice. Hard work all the time,” Schipp says. “And kids that truly care about how they do every day.”

With the ensemble comes a mix of maturity and madness, levelheadedness and lunacy.

The crew shipped down to Evansville’s Veritcal Excape indoor rock climbing center in late July to emphasize the concept of team building. They got the point. Kinda.

“We had to be (paired) with freshmen, and that was really hard because you really didn’t trust a freshman. Sorry,” senior Emily Uebelhor says. “But we do now.”

“And Hannah Welsh was really hard for me to trust because she’s like a stick. And I’m like a fat person,” Uebelhor joshes. “I was just thinking, ”˜I’m going to fall.’”

No one did. In fact, the girls even sang happy birthday to assistant coach Kathy Overton as she hung 32 feet in the air with senior Sydney Berger as her belayer.

Berger has had a similar grip on the team for some time. This summer, she collected each girl’s telephone number. Those early-morning mass text messages alerting people of any extra workouts she planned were met by the inevitable groans and grumbles. But that’s Berger.

“Sydney’s always the first one running,” Hulsman says. “She’s always like, ”˜C’mon, guyyyys.’”

So the Wildcats have kept running. And even those who aren’t competing, they keep showing up, too.

As Tara Cassidy, Welsh and five other Wildcats edged Evansville Memorial by four points for the final qualifying slot for state and sixth place at Saturday’s semistate, their teammates served as a gung-ho sideline clan.

Many were dressed in tutus. Sydney Traylor donned an American Indian costume.

“And we took pictures with a gorilla, who we don’t know,” Hulsman recalls.

They also held signs.

“Your feet hurt because you’re kicking so much (butt),” reads one.

Another: “Cross Ghetto Hustlin’.”

Naturally.

And then there was Uebelhor, who also sported a tutu. And the Wildcat mascot costume.

“I stole it for her!” an anonymous teammate exclaimed.

Teamwork.

Just like when they worked together to string caution tape across Schipp’s yard after qualifying for state. That wasn’t the first appearance they made at the coach’s house.

All 17 runners signed a large pumpkin and placed it at his front door the day before sectional, in addition to an individual pumpkin from each team member. Hannah Welsh made sure hers was the largest, and employed her twin sister, Rachael, to dig into the receptacle of pumpkins at the grocery store until the right selection was made.

“You made me pull out every pumpkin, almost,” Rachael reminds her sister.

Committed to the cause, the Wildcats are. How else do you explain six months of training to arrive at Saturday’s meet? Thousands and thousands of steps through the woods and streets of Jasper.

But please, don’t honk when you see them.

It happens “all the time,” the group says.

“I jump every time,” Berger admits.

Nonetheless, it’s nearly impossible not to turn and stare as the girls zip along the Riverwalk. Especially with Weyer and Mehringer pointing out squirrels, Hulsman and a few others belting tunes and a quartet toward the back of the pack who can’t stop asking when the next bathroom break is.

“They’re running in the back the whole time like, ”˜I have to go!’” Uebelhor re-enacts.

The reaction from bystanders?

“People are like, ”˜Uhhhh, OK?’” Hulsman says.

But fear not, they’ve matured and learned along the way. Like Uebelhor and Mary Lechner, who realized two years ago that dyeing their hair black in support of the team wasn’t a good idea after all.

“We looked in the mirror and said, ”˜What did we just do?’” Lechner says.

“I cried that night,” Uebelhor admits.

Altogether, it’s a gang of goofs, but goofy together.

“We’re a big family,” Rennie says.

A family that allows Hannah Welsh and Berger to argue over who smells more like cheese. You know, typical team stuff.

“Our team is so special because of all of our different personalities. There’s no same person on the team,” Rachael Welsh says. “We’re all super different and bring our own things to the table.”

Almost.

“Except for you and Hannah,” Hulsman notices. “It’s like you’re twins.”

More laughter. It’s time for practice.

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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