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Cougar on the prowl: New Prairie's Zelasko races to Chesterton Regional title; Trojans top Valpo

LIBERTY TOWNSHIP -- The face Lilly Zelasko shows at the starting line has the same expression for every step of the race.

Even Saturday, when the New Prairie junior enjoyed the biggest moment of her cross country career in winning the Chesterton Regional, the look didn't change.

A few steps across the finish line, Zelasko grasped the magnitude for just a couple seconds, briefly leaning to put her hands over her face.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "Just because the stats say you're somewhere else, this shows when you get into these late post-season races, it's anybody's race. It means so much. It's something you think about, but when it actually happens, it's pretty nice."

Not only was Zelasko first across in 18:32.9, she was over 12 seconds clear of runner-up and sectional champion Kaylie Politza of Valparaiso.

"We were talking before the race, you just have to stay in there mentally," Zelasko said. "Your time might not be where you want it to be, but you just go out there, try to run your race and see what happens. Don't be dictated by what someone else is doing. (Politza) usually gets me in the later stages, but it worked in my favor. We got to 3K, I could tell she was right behind me. I can hear footsteps. I don't really have much of a kick, so when I got up the hill, I was like, all right, I've got to start to pick it up, and I think that really helped. When I came around the corner, things were kind of quiet, so I must have made some ground."

For Cougars coach Julie Beakas, the key for Zelasko was simply staying within her element.

"It really was just make sure she runs her own race," Beakas said. "A lot of times, in these championship races, the field will try to hold back and make a kick at the end. I always hate that style of racing. So does Lilly. You're not racing. She knows if she waits, that's not her game. She pushes it and you're going to come with me if you want to stand a chance of winning. She drives them out and she just held on longer than they did. She's very consistent. That's her strong suit. She can get to her pace and hold it. We always know she's in the mix, that she has a shot at winning it."

The muddy conditions from the week's rains also may have worked in Zelasko's favor.

"I think it plays well to my girls," Beakas said. "They have so much heart and they're used to running on our course, the hills, the mud. I've got tough farm girls. They can take some mud. They're not afraid of it all. I think it's made for the underdog. Not that Lilly's an underdog, but people might have considered her an underdog from last week. I'm really proud of her. She's putting in the work. I'm excited to see how the rest of the season pans out. hopefully get goal of getting up on podium at state."

Valpo coach John Arredondo said he and Politza were both surprised by how hard Zelasko took it out in the heavy footing.

"We thought she would hold back, but she was pedal to the metal," Arredondo said. "She's a tough little runner. I wish we had her. She definitely ran her race, which I respect, especially in these conditions. She's got guts. I still thought Kaylie could get her, 600, 700 (left). It's a really tough finish."

Politza said her legs started to feel it the last 800, so it became a matter of just maintaining, rather than chasing Zelasko.

"Congrats to her. She's an awesome competitor," Politza said. "I don't mind the mud. It's fun. We were just focusing on being a little more conservative so we have a little something in the tank for semistate, make sure we don't burn out too soon in the post-season."

New Prairie's Lillian Zelasko won Saturday's Chesterton Regional at Sunset Hill Farm.

Chesterton reversed the sectional result, edging Valparaiso, 49-52, for team honors, all while resting scorers Alyssa Dunlap and Bree Gentry.

"Out of 12, we have about eight, who are we going to go with?" Trojans coach Lindsay Moscalick said. "It's depth. Anything can happen in meets, and any girls that can step up will be huge for us. It's seemed to work. They've seemed to be liking it. I'm excited to see us fully loaded next week, to see what we can do. We did what we needed to with the course conditions. Let's do our best, see what we can do and move on to next week."

Bailey Ranta took third in 19:05.2 to lead the Trojans with Catherine White fifth (19:38), Ciara Bonner eighth (19:53.2), Grace Carpenter 11th (20:06.2) and Isabella Smith 22nd (21:11.2).

"We've tried different strategies with Bailey," Moskalick said. "We're learning we don't have to go out super hard at the beginning. We can go out conservative and pick people off because she's talented enough. It seems to be working for her. She says she's feeling good at the end, which is what we need, a Bailey finishing strong. It's great to see Grace be able to come back and do that again. She had a great race at conference, so it's another confidence boost. Catherine did a really good job. Ciera's a racer. She goes for it. We're excited to see what she does now that she has some post-season experience. We expect some big things from her."

Valpo also sat out a few top seven runners with Brooke Byvoets and Elizabeth Ehrhardt taking a break. In addition to Politza, Cheyanne Stock was sixth, Noelle Gapinski 13th, Lillian Maldia 15th and Grace Thomas 16th.

"Noelle ran really well, which helped us out a lot," Arredondo said. "That's probably a minute (personal record). Kaylie went out and did her job, got that low stick. We had three or four in right together. Of course we want to win. We tried to win, but we're trying to get some

Chesterton's Bailey Ranta placed third in

Saturday's regional.

girls some post-season experience for next year. As a coach, I'm actually pretty happy. At 2K, we were a bit behind. We did close on them a bit, but we knew with 1000 meters, they were going to get us."

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