Three runners, one lineup spot.
About 15 minutes before Saturday's state cross country race, Valparaiso coach Mike Prow will walk up to either Kevin Mangel, Connor Ritzi or Drew Finley to let them know they will be running. The other two seniors, in turn, will know they are not.
"It's really tough," Prow said. "It's harder than cutting a kid. I don't ever remember where it was with three guys. I'll go over the pluses and minuses with (assistant coach) Aaron (Crague), but there aren't really any minuses."
In 1974, Prow was a junior at Ben Davis High School. He shared the story with his runners of how his best friend, a senior, didn't get to run in the state meet.
"He's still bitter," Prow said.
To Prow's relief, that doesn't sound like it will be an issue. Talking mid-week, each of the three said they will be disappointed if they're not chosen, but will also be happy for their teammate who is picked.
"It's going to be a bittersweet feeling," Ritzi said. "It's definitely going to hurt, no matter what. I'll feel bad (if it's me), knowing they've been working as hard as me."
Mangel's wish? That the rosters were nine instead of seven.
"We've been working for four years," he said. "We've been under the top guys our whole career. Now it's our turn. All three of us want the same spot. It's pretty stressful, not knowing, but it's tough for the coaches, too."
The three have rotated invitational and postseason events all season, finishing in succession, only a handful of seconds apart, at the Rensselaer Invitational, where they all posted personal bests. Finley ran in the Duneland Athletic Conference championship. Mangel got the nod in the sectional and regional, with Ritzi racing at semistate.
"It's hard to put somebody in the state meet who hasn't run (in the tournament)," Prow said. "I want all three to feel ready to go to the line if they get the call."
Mangel has been running since he was 7, following the cross country program from a young age. Ritzi and Finley started later, developing a passion for the sport as well.
"The last three, four years have been building to this point," Ritzi said. "It's something we all want really bad."
"Running's become a part of my life," said Finley, once a 'middle of the pack' guy. "We're all good friends, especially the senior group, and this has made us grow even closer. We've worked year-round to get where we are. It's been a dream. We all want it right now to prove what we've done was right."
Come decision time, Prow expects hurt feelings. He would be disappointed if there weren't.
"I won't blame them if they're upset with me," he said. "That means they were positive, they had no doubts in their mind. They'll take it well. They're all team guys. They'll all rally around each other. It's all a part of learning to be a better runner, coping with things. This won't be the worst thing that will ever happen to them."
Valpo's pack running approach emphasizes how each individual is competing not just for himself, but for his teammates. If one gets a team medal, all 12 on the state roster get a medal. That will be a particular emphasis Saturday for the member of the triad who gets to race.
"At the end of the day, it's not about you," Mangel said. "It's about how the team performs."