It started with a summer run, a bit of chatter and a dream of sorts.
The Maplewood High School boys cross country team came into the 2003 season thinking the success and state Division III title it won the year before couldn't be replicated.
"That year's team came together at the end of the season better than any team I've been a part of or any team I've ever known since then," said Craig Rupe, a senior on that team. "No one, including us, knew what we had going into the season, so it made sense for everyone to think McDonald was the favorite. They had all but one guy coming back and were state runners-up in 2002. Even we were convinced they were going to win, except for Jon Carlson. On a summer run he mentioned how he wanted to repeat as champs and I thought he was crazy because I wasn't sure we would even make it to state. None of us wanted to be the team to break 'The Streak' (making it to state every year since 1990 and ending after the 2009 season) so we pushed each other very hard from day one and just tried to improve every meet. The combination of senior leadership and freshman talent really allowed us to have a quantum leap of improvement because the freshmen were able to grow up quickly because of the seniors and the seniors improved more than anyone thought because they were pushed by the freshmen. In the end, I think we were able to thrive because of that combination and I think that is what made us the better team."
Then, come race day, the impossible occurred. McDonald was the top-ranked team coming into the state meet, which was held at Scioto Downs in Columbus.
Maplewood after Maplewood runner crossed the finish line and entered the chute with personal best times, something that was unfathomable heading into state - including four all-Ohio finishers. The top 25 in each race are all-Ohio runners.
It was an unlikely freshman named Andy Arnio who would be the first Rocket across the finish line.
"I wouldn't say that we were a better team," said Arnio, who is a Kent State University graduate currently starting his apprenticeship in the elevator construction industry.
"Most of our success has to go to (former coach Ted) Rupe, first and foremost. His knowledge of the sport and his ability to prepare training that will bring out the best in his athletes is a close second. I'd also have to say that we had some great leadership from our seniors that year, especially with having a bunch of freshman coming onto the team hoping to contribute. And finally I'd have to say that we went into the season expecting very little, and throughout the year, our team began to get better and better, and we just bought into the system and began believing. McDonald had a great team, but we just came on at the right time and had some unexpected performances in the tournaments, and mostly at the state meet, which led to an amazing end to our journey."
Maplewood scored 46 points, the lowest total the Rockets have accumulated in their five state championships dating back to the first - a Class A state title in 1972 led by Rupe, who had the fastest time at that meet. Ironically enough, Arnio accomplished the same feat in 2005, with he and teammate Andy Morgan, who also was a freshman in 2003, taking first and second, respectively.
But in 2003, it was about the one through seven runners clocking personal best times.
"Everyone improved as a team because we were pushed by and learned from everyone else on the team," said Craig Rupe, who was a senior on that team. "The seniors did not want to let each other down and the freshmen were sort of in awe of us and didn't want to let us down either. And as a team none of us wanted to let my dad down and end 'The Streak.' I don't think the key was any one person. If you would've taken Arnio out of the state meet we still would of won with our sixth man Jimmy Hall. Not to take anything away from Arnio's amazing state meet race, but scoring 46 points is a team effort. If I could credit any one person it would probably be Jon Carlson because of how hard he worked and fought to solidify that fifth-man spot. He thrived knowing the success of our team was completely dependent on him."
McDonald finished second that year with a distant 101 points. Winning, let alone winning by that margin, wasn't even in the team's wildest dreams.
"All we wanted to do is come back and bring back a solid team and show we weren't out. We never fathomed anything like this happening," said Paul Moser after running in that 2003 state meet. "We just wanted to get to state and keep Mr. Rupe's streak alive."
But it all came down to the preparation of then coach Ted Rupe.
"I give my dad a lot of credit because he was able to pull our team together despite the different personalities and the strange dynamic of freshmen and seniors," Craig Rupe said. "Throughout the season he was able to calm me down when the freshmen would drive me crazy and at the same time build the confidence of the freshmen when they would get discouraged. As far as the day of state meet, there really wasn't much to say because we all knew that if we ran like how we had been the previous weeks we would walk away with a state title."
Craig, who is a chemistry and biology teacher at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, is an assistant cross country and track coach with the Royals. He's seen this year's CVCA team slightly edge out this year's Maplewood, coached by former Rockets runner Dave Deeter, at the Tiffin Carnival and at The Legends meet this season.
This year's Maplewood team is ranked first in the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches.
"The key to this year's team is their leadership up front with Tristan (Dahmen), Solomon (Yoder) and Derek (Morrison)," Craig Rupe said. "When you have three consistent guys like that at the top everything else kind of falls into place. We (CVCA) have raced them a couple times this year and they always bring out the best in us because of how well we match up. They've had a huge contribution from freshman Jake Hall who on is on the verge of having the greatest freshman year at Maplewood ever for anyone not named Andy, and have had great competition for that fifth spot between Scott (Rupe), Zach (Leatherberry), Charlie (Woodrum) and Nick (Cowger). This is probably the deepest team Maplewood has ever had, and this type of depth is rare to see at Division III schools. All of these factors make for a team that's extremely difficult to beat."