Despite losing the top-two runners from last season’s state-qualifying squad, Highland coach Doug Bradley hopes productive summer workouts will pay off for his cross country Lady Bulldogs.
“Summer mileage on the whole has been pretty good,” said Bradley, who is assisted by Bob Vance. “This group has been cohesive and turnout for the summer workouts has been solid. In addition to the mileage, the team has worked hard on building up their strength, and hopefully, that will pay dividends down the road.
“I think the outlook is cautiously optimistic. We lost our top two runners from last year and with them went a lot of experience,” added Bradley, whose team opens the season at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1 with the Kick-Off Meet at Alhambra Township Park.
Highland lost the talented duo of Jayden Shelton and Taylor Prusa to graduation from last year’s squad, which finished second in the Mississippi Valley Conference, third at the Class 2A Triad Regional, fifth at the Decatur MacArthur Sectional and 24th at the Class 2A state meet. Shelton and Prusa are both currently running in college, with Shelton at McKendree University and Prusa at St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
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But there are bright spots coming back to the mix for the Lady Bulldogs. Key returners are senior Allison Zobrist, juniors Courtney Hengehold and Sarah Beth Wiegman, and sophomore Breann Wernle. All four have state-meet experience, which makes them the frontrunners for the top varsity spots on the team.
Zobrist was on a meteoric pace that saw her shatter cross country and track records during her sophomore year. In the fall, she notched the best individual finish in school history with a sixth-place medal at the Class 2A Girls Cross Country Championships in Peoria. Then in the spring, Zobrist broke the school’s track records in all three distance events, the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters.
But about halfway through that track season, Zobrist suffered a stress fracture of her tibia. And despite enduring a lot of pain, she gutted it out to help the 4 x 800-meter relay team earn seventh-place medals at the IHSA Class 2A Girls State Track and Field Championships in Charleston.
But with the reward also came severe consequences. Zobrist had to miss the entire ensuing cross country season in the fall of her junior year.
“Allison has had a lot of bad luck since mid-April of her sophomore year,” Bradley said. “Incredibly, she toughed out a state meet that year with a micro-fracture. She made an attempt to return in cross country, but the healing was slow, and it wasn’t worth the risk. Her track season didn’t go as well as she hoped, as she just couldn’t shake off the rust. She’s had a tough time, but she’s an amazing kid. Allison is still on the mend and isn’t back to running regularly yet. We are all pulling for her and hope that she can reinvent herself.”
Zobrist, who is the team’s captain, continues battle against what has been an uphill climb for the better part of the past year and a half.
“There have been minor setbacks here and there since my muscles aren’t as strong as they used to be,” she said. “I’m not giving up though, and I am slowly but surely getting stronger.”
Bradley said in addition to Zobrist hopefully getting stronger throughout the season, the Lady Bulldogs will have to get some solid seasons out of Hengehold and Wiegman. The experienced runners will also need to assimilate the newcomers and mold them into a confident team.
Some key newcomers for the Bulldogs are junior Sarah Jansen and freshmen Kate Marti. They will be battling the top-four harriers and each other for one of the seven coveted varsity spots.
Also in the mix for the top-seven spots for Highland are juniors Sarah Jansen and Sydney Nyquist, as well as freshmen Lily Becker and Lexy Gilliam.
Filling out the roster for the Lady Bulldogs are senior Lexie Plocher, sophomores Brittany Cunningham, Mady Potthast, Hanna Rose and Keely Rittenhouse, and freshmen Lily Garbett, Eden Imming and Sarah Kampwerth.
Last season saw Highland drop the conference title to Triad.
“We would like to avenge that but (the Lady Knights) have a nice team coming back. Waterloo also has a nice group of freshmen coming in,” Bradley said.
For the team to make a third consecutive trip to the state meet, it will at least take another herculean effort.
“A trip to state will require a lot of hard work and probably a little luck as lack of depth continues to plague the program,” Bradley said. “Our girls were in no way, shape or form, contenders last year, but they miraculously squeezed in with a gutsy performance. With Rochester and Decatur St. Theresa in our sectional this year, our margin for error to make another state trip just got a lot smaller.”