Last fall, the Franklin Regional High School boys cross country team set a goal of qualifying for state competition; this year the Panthers are pushing through obstacles to get there.
Three weeks ago, Franklin Regional junior Rob Ashman was holding down the No. 2 spot for his team at the Gateway Invitational in Boyce Park. Franklin had the lead in the race; Luke Schott was ahead of Ashman while Ben Meyers, Bret Trottier and Ian Griffiths weren't far behind. With the finish line in sight, it seemed nothing could stop the Panthers' rush.
Ashman lengthened his stride and went into his kick, but that's when he felt his left hamstring snap. It was too late for Schott to notice; he was too far ahead. But Meyers, Trottier, and Griffiths saw Ashman go down. And the three were determined to bring Franklin through successfully.
"I don't even think they had time to think about it," Panthers coach Rick Bullock described his team's response to Ashman's fall. "It was 150 yards from the finish and they were already at 110 percent. They were like, 'just finish the race and see what happens.'"
As a result, the Panthers still finished third of 15 teams. Schott came in sixth at 18:21, while Meyers and Trottier followed at 18:33 and 18:37. Bullock was proud of the Franklin team that day.
"They all ran really well," he said. "I'm really proud of the whole pack -- they were without a No. 2 runner."
Although no one anticipated Ashman's hamstring tear, Bullock had wanted the early meet at Gateway to teach the Panthers about running under pressure.
"They put in a good summer," Bullock explained. "We're not deterred by losing our second runner. We'll still be where we want to be at the end of the season. 'States' is our goal and we're doing our best to achieve that."
In other words, the Panthers are stepping up their workouts and are staying the course. Junior Eric Pierce is in his first year with the varsity squad in Ashman's absence. Pierce was Franklin's No. 1 finisher in the JV race at Gateway; his time there was 21:39, for 26th place out of 111 finishers.
The results are showing for Franklin, too. At the Sept. 8 Red, White and Blue Classic event, the Franklin Regional boys placed 11th out of 60 boys' varsity teams. This placement is up 12 spots from Franklin's performance in the same meet last year. The Panthers' four returning runners -- Schott, Meyers, Trottier and Mo Sajjad -- each cut time from their 2011 results.
Even Ashman is working toward Franklin's team goals, in spite of his torn left hamstring.
"I'm working with him every day," said Bullock.
"I'll go out in the car and have a water jug set up at a couple of different intersections. Then, I take Rob out."
As of mid-September Ashman was able to walk without crutches, so Bullock positioned his car at a point between the two intersections where he'd set up water jugs. To rehabilitate his leg, Ashman simply walked laps around the car via the two water jugs.
Ashman's timeline for return to cross country will be determined by his progress, but Bullock is optimistic.
"Rob has a great attitude," Bullock said.
The rest of the Franklin Regional team is more determined than ever to achieve a team berth at this year's PIAA meet, as well as a successful season in general. Bullock explained that Ashman's injury happened early enough for the Panthers to move past it.
"We had an unfortunate accident and an unfortunate injury," Bullock said. "If you get them too late in the season in October, you can't recover. In the early meets, it doesn't matter as much."