Highland High coach Doug Bradley admitted the girls cross country team was a bit apprehensive entering last Saturday’s Decatur MacArthur Sectional at Hickory Point Golf Course.
“The team was understandably nervous going into this thing. We haven’t been running real well in October so we knew we were vulnerable with another average race,” he said.
But Bradley’s trepidation was unfounded as the Lady Bulldogs stepped up and came through big time, finishing in fourth place to advance to the ISHA Class 2A Girls State Cross Country Meet for the third year in a row.
“We were anything but average today though,” he said. “When the girls were told they had made it, the tears started to flow. There are tears all over the park on sectional Saturday every year and every coach wants their team to cry the kind we had today — tears of joy.”
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Highland’s strength all season has been pack running and it was at its best on Saturday as the Lady Bulldogs’ top four runners — freshman Kate Marti, junior Sarah Beth Wiegman, senior Allison Zobrist and sophomore Breann Wernle —were separated by just 12 seconds at the finish line, from Marti leading the way back to Wernle as the fourth harrier.
“When a team runs that fast and that close together they are going to be tough to beat. I’m hoping we get a similar scenario at state on Saturday,” Bradley said of the state meet to be held at Detweiller Park in Peoria.
Highland’s top four runners all finished among the top-30 finishers in the field of 137 harriers, led by Marti in 21st place after stopping the fully automatic timing clock at 18:55. She was followed closely to the finish line by Wiegman (25th place, 18:58), Zobrist (27th place, 19:04) and Wernle (28th place, 19:07).
“The feeling was amazing when I crossed the finish line knowing that I had just ran to the best of my ability and that my teammates had also,” Zobrist said. “I could see Kate, Sarah Beth, and Breann throughout the whole race. We were all up near the front part of the race so I knew we were all running great races, but never would I have dreamed that we would come across the finish line within 12 seconds of each other. I am so proud of how we have developed as a team. It was a complete group effort and we couldn’t have got the job done if everyone did not pitch in the way they did.”
Chatham Glenwood won the team title with a meet-low point total of 66 to edge out runner-up Rochester (66).
Also qualifying for state as a team by placing in the top five in the 18-team sectional were Springfield (134), Highland (143) and Decatur St. Theresa (153).
Just missing the cut were Highland’s Mississippi Valley Conference rivals Waterloo (186), Triad (208) and Mascoutah (243).
However, Waterloo freshman Jenna Schwartz and Triad senior Abigail Richter easily qualified as individual after Schwartz finished ninth at 18:24 and Richter wound up 10th at 18:26.
Rochester freshman Katherine Petty was the individual sectional champion with a winning time of 17:31.
Highland has had four different No. 1 runners this year so it was a bit of a mystery to see who was going to set the pace for the Lady Bulldogs on Saturday. But the mystery did not last long as Marti went to the front pretty early and her teammates did a great job of keeping her in sight.
“Kate is strong and determined and she wanted to lead the team today,” Bradley said. “This is the seventh time we’ve come to the sectional in Decatur and her time today was the second fastest in our school’s history here. She’s a special talent and it was on full display this afternoon.”
Wiegman had a very busy but very effective eight-day span. First on Oct. 24, she ran a solid race to lead Highland at its own regional at Alhambra Township Park. Wiegman then played a key role in two big volleyball postseason wins on Monday and Tuesday of last week before the Lady Bulldogs had a heartbreaking loss in the finals of the volleyball regional last Thursday night. The next morning on Friday, Wiegman had to switch gears to get ready for the sectional race.
“I think she really raced well considering all the stress she had to be under,” Bradley said. “She took the early lead for us and then handed off to Kate but never let Kate get too far away from her. It was another of her many gutsy performances.”
Zobrist made her first sectional appearance since finishing as a sectional champ two years ago. She went on to break the school record at state with a sixth-place individual finish before having to sit out last year due to a leg injury.
“It had to be tough emotionally to race here but she was determined to see to it that her team made it to state this season,” Bradley said. “She and I didn’t discuss a race plan. I knew she wanted to go fast and left it at that. She ran great today. She was 14 seconds faster than she was a freshman when she qualified for state as an individual. To see her having fun again was simply amazing.”
Bradley said it was quite possible that the star of the day was Wernle because she had two previous races this season where he felt like she was running close to her potential.
“Today’s race brings that number to three,” he said. “She really put the nail in the coffin of Waterloo and Triad. This sport is so mental and requires nearly 20 minutes of complete focus and determination. It also requires equal parts of aggression and patience. When any of these factors falls out of balance an athlete can flounder. Breann had it all working today.”
Rounding out Highland’s team score was freshman Lily Becker, who came home in 50th place at 19:54.
“Lily Becker set a personal record today in the biggest race of the season,” Bradley said. “There is little more a coach can ask a kid to do than run their best race ever on the biggest stage to date. She rose to the occasion and completed the scoring with a top-50 finish.”
Looking forward to state this weekend, Zobrist said the team’s main goal is to not be satisfied with just qualifying.
“We want to fight for a great finish and a high team ranking at Detweiller on Saturday,” she said. “We want to prove that Highland is going to be a force to be reckoned with at the state meet in the years to come.”
Bradley echoed Zobrist’s thoughts exactly.
“The goal is pretty cut-and-dried for the girls heading into the state meet — run even faster,” he said. “We can’t be happy with just being there. For the program to move forward, we have to become competitors in the state meet. I see opportunity for us to get faster. I think we are closer to but not at our full potential yet. It’s my intention to push them hard this week both mentally and physically.”
Also competing at the sectional were junior Courtney Hengehold (70th place, 20:35) and freshman Lexy Gilliam (105th place, 21:54).
“Courtney Hengehold was dinged up this week and she felt rusty after about 10 days of rest,” Bradley said. “Hopefully, we can get her some race training this week. Lexy Gilliam did what a No. 7 runner needs to do in a race. She pushed the Nos. 5 and 6 (runners). I asked her to turn up the heat early in the race and we got our fastest mile of the season out of a No. 7 runner and she even cracked the top 50 in the first half mile. Her aggression paid dividends for her team and that’s precisely what was needed.”
For the boys, junior Jacob Plocher competed at the sectional, finishing in 56th place at 16:39.
“Jacob Plocher’s season ended today with a 16:39,” Bradley said. “I think that this is the third fastest time in school history. I enjoyed every second of watching him run today because he didn’t earn this trip with his talent. He bought a spot in the sectionals with hard work.”
Plocher started well today and gave himself a chance to accomplish a personal record. He competed well in the second mile but struggled a bit to hold his pace near the end of the race.
“He had distributed his energy so effectively that he was left without a kick,” Bradley said. “He was running with nothing but pure determination over the last few hundred meters. He came up nine seconds short of the goal he was chasing. It would’ve been awesome to have had light winds today but instead he was running into 30 mph wind gusts along a few sections of the course.”