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'All in the family' more than a phrase at New London

Mark Hazelwood • Oct 15, 2018 at 8:41 PM

NEW LONDON — For three months out of the year, every Friday morning as the sun is rising — the drivers in New London are a little more cautious.

Dating back at least 30-plus years, in the exact stretch of town, members of the New London High School cross country team practice beginning at 6 a.m. before school starts.

"We wear reflective vests and things like that, but people still know to look out for us," head cross country coach Keith Landis said. "It's safer that way, and it's fun having this community behind us — because they know what to expect."

What can be expected is yearly contention for the Firelands Conference, district and state championship trophies — but with a unique aspect.

In small communities — especially in the village of New London, which has only twice exceeded 2,500 in population over the past 50 years — there will always be some type of family connections.

But for the two Wildcat cross country programs — both ranked No. 12 in the latest Division III state coaches polls — the family ties run a little extreme. On this year's teams alone, there are nine brothers and sisters on the rosters. Five more runners have siblings currently in the junior high program.

All told, there are 21-of-34 runners with connections to the program through siblings, parents and/or aunts, uncles and cousins to the program.

"I think it's family and everyone being close to each other, and being able to count on each other," said Curtis Joppeck, usually the top finisher in races for the 'Cats this fall. "Every time we go out there to perform, someone has our backs."

For senior Gabrielle Osterland, one of the top runners for the girls team, she is one of the first in some time from her family to run at New London.

"Then I roped my sister (Jill) into doing it," Osterland said. "She's probably under more pressure than I was."

The term pressure is thrown out rather frequently within the program. And it's not just to try and top or repeat 2017, which saw the boys place 11th in the state and the girls team finish 17th.

"Probably every day we talk about it in some fashion," Curtis Joppeck said. "We just have to work our hardest every day, that's what we tell each other. We've been up here every day, and we just have to keep working to keep it there."

For Mitch Joppeck, who acknowledges his brother is "a little better" than he is, the pressure is more perception.

"I mean, we have our goals that I guess you can consider pressure, but we feel like we should excel with all the work we've put in," Mitch said. "Like right now, there is definitely room to improve — but I like where we are."

But no one understands those pressures and demands than Landis. His uncle is former coach Bob Knoll, who started the program in 1972 and turned it what he tries to maintain today.

"And it's probably undue pressure because I'm spoiled — these kids are great," Landis said. "But I do worry about it, and injuries, things like that. I don't know that I'm necessarily cutting edge, but I'm always reading and seeing what others are doing with training, to focus on flexibility and injury prevention.

"The running is the easy part, I've been doing that for a long time," he added. "But I'm always nervous about kids dropping time as we progress through a season. The part that makes it easy is regardless of our success, these kids are learning hard work, and in the grand scheme of things that's more important than a run, anyway."

However, Landis also noted the family connections also have made things easier to a degree.

"A lot of kids would balk at the idea of picking up a new sport and starting at 7 a.m. for conditioning in the summer, or showing up Friday morning at 6 a.m. for practice before school on Fridays," he said. "If that were a new concept and I was a new coach ... it probably wouldn't be the same.

"So it's good, because if the kids were going to balk at all, mom and dad, or brother and sister, aunt and uncle — they can explain this is just what the program does," Landis added. "So that's an awesome thing when you have that in a small, close-knit community."

And so on Saturday at Galion, the 'real' season begins for a program that has so much expected of it — even just within individual family homes.

Entering Saturday's district meet, the boys program has won 57 invitationals, 24 Firelands Conference championships, 14 district titles and two regional titles — capped with the 1993 state championship and a runners-up state finish in 1992. Twelve times the Wildcat boys have finished in the top 10 at state.

"I like where the team is at, but we still have to get better if we want to accomplish the big goal, but I know we can do it," Curtis Joppeck said. "The experience at state helps, but the weather and competition is always a variable you never know until you get down there if we're fortunate — so we just have to take it week by week."

Meanwhile, the girls program has 32 invite wins, 15 FC titles, six district championships, a pair of regional titles and twice has finished in the top 10 at state, including third place in 1979.

No pressure, right?

"Well, maybe there is more so (pressure) now, especially since this is one of the better years we are having," Osterland said. "I want to go out and lead and set a good example for the team. Last year we went to state, and I don't want it for us to be really good one year and then fall off some.

"Overall it's just a really good environment — and a really big family that throughout history have been very successful," she added. "That helps, and we want to keep that tradition and success going. We're feeling pretty confident."

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