After 6 decades, Jasper boys XC returns to state

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Jasper High School senior cross country runner Jackson Miller, left, talks with 1952 Jasper High School cross country runner Jerry Sermersheim, 81, of Jasper, during a surprise gathering for the team at the school in Jasper on Tuesday. Sermersheim says he remembers going up to the state competition. "We did our best," he said.


JASPER — What’s the best way for a team to celebrate the end of a 60-plus-year drought between state championship appearances? For the Jasper boys cross country team, the occasion called for pulled pork, macaroni and cheese and cookies. Plus an appearance from some of the members of the last team to make it to the final race.

The Jasper boys cross country team held an informal gathering at the high school Tuesday night to honor the school’s first state appearance since 1952. Friends and family of the cross country team came together to congratulate the boys — along with sophomore Andi VanMeter, who will represent the Jasper girls at state for the second time — on their accomplishments, and there was even an appearance from Mayor Dean Vonderheide, who encouraged the runners to give it their best on Saturday in Terre Haute.

Assistant coach Tara Eckman, who served as the main organizer of the celebration, said the initial inspiration came to her early in the season. Head coach Kevin Schipp had talked about how the boys team hadn’t made it to state since 1952, but there was an air of hope around this season that the returning runners and the new crop of freshmen could have what it takes to end the decadeslong absence from the state meet. So with the help of school media teacher Evan Elrod and her father, Eckman went about gathering information on which members of the 1952 state team were local.

“It was just something that remained in my head for a few months, that if we got to this point, it would be really cool to see how many of them we could find,” Eckman said. “Kept that in my hip pocket, and started making phone calls on Sunday after I knew we were going.”

Jasper High School senior cross country runner Cam Kilian, third from left, leads a cheer with members of the 1952 Jasper High School cross country team during a surprise gathering for the team at the school in Jasper on Tuesday.

Eckman was hoping to get one or two members to attend the gathering, but she wound up recruiting five guys who were either runners or managers from the ’52 team: Jerry Sermersheim, Mike Witte, Ed Kapp, Ralph Lorey and Rich Sermersheim. After some brief remarks, the team sat down to break bread with the ’52 team members and take in any wisdom they could share on running at the state meet.

“They just told us when they went there they had fun with it,” said senior runner Jackson Miller, who ran as an individual in the state meet last season. “They weren’t too serious about anything. They told us to go out there and have fun. It would be a cool moment for all of us, and they said to just embrace it.”

Schipp is proud that the boys and VanMeter are able to cash in on the hard work and sacrifices they’ve put in to make it to the state meet. He lauded them for taking ownership of their preparation and training, putting in extra running time outside of mandated practice time to harness their talents to the highest possible level.

“They didn’t want to waste that opportunity, and put in the work,” he said. “A lot of times you have one or two people that put that kind of work in, but to have seven to 10 that are doing it, it definitely looked like that could happen. They had been talking about this for over a year before now. It’s exciting for them to get that opportunity.”

The team was not only excited about fulfilling its goals in making it to state, but the historical context of being the first to do it in more than six decades adds another layer to the feat which they hope sets a new trend for the Jasper cross country program moving forward.

Jerry Sermersheim, 83, of Jasper, signs a team photo from the 1952 Jasper High School cross country team during a surprise gathering for the current cross country team at the school in Jasper on Tuesday.

“That feels absolutely incredible,” senior Evan Wood said. “I think there were hints here and there, but it mostly started to show later in the year. During practice, most of us started realizing our ability. Eventually, we were like, ‘Hey, we got this; we can do this.’”

“We kind of changed the culture of Jasper cross country,” senior Drew O’Neil added. “It used to be we were the sleeping giants. We could have had the talent all those years, but it’s no way it should have been 67 years. But this year we went out there and did it. It feels good.”

While it’s nice to be celebrated by the community, the team is hoping it can bring back more than just good feelings when the Wildcats go to Terre Haute for the state meet. They are dedicated to doing the best they can and leaving all their effort on the course for Saturday afternoon’s race.

“This year, I’m focused more on placing higher because I’ve been there,” VanMeter said. “I’ve learned a lot, and I know how to race better. I remember last year I was so nervous I didn’t warm up as good as I should have, then took out hard, because everyone takes out hard. This year, I know what to expect a little more. This year, I don’t want to take off as hard so I have enough left for later.”

“Everybody is just trying to stay calm and relaxed, keep our legs feeling good this week,” Miller added. “There’s not much you can do anymore. We already put in all the hard work. Saturday’s the time we get to show off and see what happens.”

More on