BREESE — Competing on one of the premier cross country teams in the state, Mater Dei junior Madeline Lager knows all about the pressure of running in the postseason.
And it brings out the best in the Knights' three-sport standout. After a 57th-place finish as a freshman in the Class 2A state meet two years ago, Lager earned a medal with a 14th-place finish in the 2011 finals.
But this year on a cool, November morning at beautiful Detweiller Park in Peoria, something was different. Shortly before the start of the Class 1A race, tears started rolling down the face of the normally in-control Lager.
"I had a meltdown,'' said Lager, one of the BND's co-players of the year in cross country. "Normally I'm relaxed before a race. But I was nervous this year. I don't know why. I guess maybe it was the pressure.''
But once the race began, Lager's emotions were back in check. Battling against two of the state's best harriers in Decatur St. Teresa's Ivy Handley and Rachel Devereaux, Lager more then held her own.
In the top five throughout, Lager finished the three-mile course in 17 minutes 50 seconds, just 26 seconds behind the winning time of 17:24 of Handley, but good enough to earn her the fourth-place medal.
"It was a good race and I was pleased," Lager said. "I was fourth at the two-mile mark, then I passed a girl and then Devereaux passed me. I was pretty steady the entire race.
"Those two Decatur (St Teresa) girls -- Ivy Handley and Rachel Deveraux -- are so good. And, they're both so nice, too.''
Lager, who won seven invitational titles and placed second in both the Class 1A regional and sectional, had the highest finish of any local girl runner at the state finals.
Lager, the daughter of Jerry and Wanda Lager, said that while she had a good regular season, her focus since the opening day of practice in August was the state finals.
"I really wanted to my best at the state meet," she said. "That's all I thought about all year was running at that race. So I really had to push myself all year so I knew I would be ready to run my best time at the state meet.
"That was tough to do. At practice, I had my teammates to push me a little bit and Kari (teammate Kari Wiegmann) really helped me out. But during some meets, it was really tough for me when I was up ahead. I just kept thinking about the finish line and how I couldn't give up.''
Giving up isn't in Lager's nature, said Knights coach Dave Kohnen. Lager led the way for a young Mater Dei team that placed ninth at the state meet.
"We had a very young team, and Madeline did a good job of helping out with some of the freshmen. She's one of our leaders,'' Kohnen said. "Competitiveness is comething you can't teach. You're born with that. She just hates to lose.''
Lager also plays as a guard on the Knights basketball team. While she likes both sports, cross country is her favorite.
"I like cross country more. I like the individuality of it more. But I also like relying on my teammetes in basketball. Basketball is a lot of fun and the girls are great. But I love running.''
Lager also enjoys running against Althoff junior Savannah Ames. The Crusaders standout defeated Lager at both the regional and sectional before placing 19th at the Class A state finals.
"Savannah is just an awesome person. She's so nice, and we talk all the time after the race,'' Lager said. "The goal at the regional and sectional was advance, and I did that.
"I knew I wanted to do well at state, and so I just saved my best race for the state.''
Lager's fourth-place finish at state is the second best in school history. Jamie Kuhl placed third in both the 2003 and 2004 state finals. Kuhl went on to run at the University of Illinois.
One of Lager's goals for her senior season? A top-two finish at state.
"I was thinking about that (winning) after the race," she said. "How great it would feel to win the whole thing. Of course, I'm going to try. Nobody goes into the state final race trying to get second or third."
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or email@example.com