As a freshman, Ben Savage didn't need a watch. He had Alec Kostelnik.
"He'd go out front fast, then he'd try to slow the pace for me so we could run together," Savage said.
Kostelnik, a two-time all-state runner at Morgan Township, is now at IUPUI, and the most tangible evidence of his absence is the watch on Savage's wrist.
"I have to see my splits," Savage said. "It's definitely different. It's hard, especially when it comes to races. The last mile, everyone's weakening, and Alec pulled me through that. He made me stronger, more disciplined. In practice, we'd have a mile left and I'd be like, 'Oh, let's just quit,' and Alec would say, 'Come on, we've got one more to go.' He's the strongest person I've ever met, mentally. He's got some guts I wish I had."
Slowly but surely, Savage is learning to navigate his way without his compass. He and Kostelnik remain in close contact via text messages, Savage seeking out his former teammate for advice as the new face of the Cherokees program.
"It's put more pressure on me, but I love the challenge," Savage said. "Alec's been at all levels. He'd always tell me I've got the talent. It was kind of weird the first couple races, but he's not here anymore. Sometimes, you have to move on. I'm getting used to it now."
Last year, Kostelnik did all the talking and Savage was free to focus on himself. A season removed from being the protégé, Savage has now assumed the role of mentor.
"He's definitely taken over," Morgan coach Mike Grennes said. "There's no getting around it. Though he's a sophomore, kids look up to him and they're going to follow him. If he says, 'Let's go do this,' they're going to go do it. Ben learned a lot from Alec. He's maturing."
In practice, Grennes often staggers his runners, putting the group out in front of Savage so he doesn't feel like he's training alone.
"There are things he still has to work on, but Ben's come a long way," Grennes said. "He's definitely running better than he was a year ago at this time. He really educates himself on the sport. He's constantly checking times. He stays in touch with guys around the state, the good runners. He's understanding the whole concept a lot better, that it's not about what you do now, but how you run in October."
Savage reached the semistate last fall. With a mile to go, he was poised to qualify for state, positioned 14th. It all came apart from there and he wound up 41st.
"I was thankful for the season I had -- not many (freshmen) get to do what I did -- but I was disappointed in my last race," he said. "I learned a lot."
In track, Savage made the regional in the 3,200. He finished sixth, but the net gain was the experience of facing quality competition, which should benefit him when he possibly returns to semistate next month.
"Some of it was inexperience," Grennes said. "We all know if you don't run well one race, you don't make it. (State) has been the goal from the start and it's a realistic goal."
Savage, who also began doing core workouts to complement his mileage, will get his first major test today at the New Prairie Invitational.
"I definitely feel stronger," he said. "I'm mentally stronger. I'd like my times to be a little faster, but I don't want to burn out early. There haven't been many races I've had to work hard for. I just have to stay the pace, try to take baby steps. It's a long season. You never know what might happen. We're only at the mid-point. The most important races before the postseason are the next couple weeks, and I'm excited about that. I'm ready for it."