UNION TOWNSHIP -- In many ways, the 2020 girls cross country season at Wheeler has been years in the making.
With a core of seniors who have been together since sixth grade and made it to three straight semistates, the Bearcats aim to do something that's never been done before in their sport at the high school -- qualify for state.
"I am a little nervous. On paper, we're ranked up there," Emily Gaylord said. "We want to work for it. When we put our minds to it, we get it."
Now the question is, will they get the chance?
"Most of us started running in sixth grade. We've been together for a long time. We knew even when we were younger that we would be a good group coming up," Sarah Gerbick said. "When practices got held back until the middle of July, we were nervous that it was going to get cancelled. Then a lot of us were getting injured, so it was a rocky start, but now we're good, we're excited. We're trying to cherish our senior year. It's our last year together. It always used to be, oh, I don't want to go (to practice). Now every day we go, we're so excited. The coaches are making it fun. We're just taking it week by week."
Wheeler finished 12th in last season's semistate and graduated just one runner from its lineup. Add in some strong young talent and it's clear to see why the Bearcats think the next step is within reach, if COVID-19 doesn't get in the way.
"It's a little stressful but I think in the end it will make me work harder," said Hailey Orosz, whose 20th-place finish at state makes her the top returning senior in the area. "It is a little upsetting that it's not going to be like any other year, no awards ceremonies, but we really don't have a choice. I know what's at stake and it's important to me. Obviously, we want to go out being the best we've ever been."
At practice, the runners are taking precautions, distancing and wearing masks during pre- and post-run stretches.
"Even though it's not ideal, everything is give and take," Gaylord said. "This isn't like football, there's no contact, but we're still in close quarters. We want everyone to be safe. We understand everything. We're very thankful our program is up and running. Honestly, I feel honored to be able to have sports. I know many schools have cancelled. I have plenty of friends we compete with. We stay in touch with each other, (ask) how's training? Their season's been cut out. It's just upsetting."
During such a trying time that is exacting a mental toll on many people of all ages, Gaylord takes solace in her running circle of support.
"We're a very close-knit team," she said. "It's a very different kind of friendship, one we've always stuck with. They're a teammate as well as a competitor, and friends at school. We go on long runs. You run six miles, you're feeling good, you've got somebody every day (to talk to), how someone's family is doing, just ranting about stressfulness. A lot of it is about COVID. It's unfortunate, but it's what is upon us. It's a new thing. It's all about adjusting to the situation."
Wheeler finished 12th in the New Prairie Semistate last season. It returns six of its seven runners from that meet and will be boosted by a strong freshman class. (Photo Provided)
Classmate Dottie Heuring didn't enjoy the group until her freshman year, when she was recruited by her friends after a time she posted during a Gym class run.
"I was never in any sports," she said.
Like the rest, Heuring's anxious to see it come to its hoped-for conclusion.
"We're all just trying to stay positive and hope for the best," she said. "Under normal circumstances, it could be one of the best seasons we ever have, but if not, we'll just make the most of it, embrace what we have because some schools don't have it at all. We'll take it day by day and see what happens. We have high hopes everything goes as planned."
Emma Hellwege, who finished 69th at state last season, has run with the seniors since her sixth-grade season, and is among the top returning juniors in the area.
"I've grown up with them," she said. "Going to a small school, I've known them for years. I sure hope we actually get to compete against the bigger schools. I hope for the best. Every practice, the coaches make sure to let us know we have the potential. We don't know for a fact but the way we're planning it out to be, with the newcomers coming in, they should be learning with each race. If we do make it to that, I'll be super happy and thankful. If we don't, I'm hoping the season at least progressed."
That unknown element adds a sense of urgency to each trip to the starting line.
"I kind of just think about it, even if the season is completely normal, we should still be approaching each race as if it's our last," Hellwege said. "You can get hurt. There are multiple other factors. The biggest thing is we honestly don't know how long we have. Having two weeks off in the summer gave us an awakening that it can be taken away just like that. If this is my last race, I should be giving it my all. That sums it up."
The summer pause even prompted some of the seniors to join the golf team just in case cross country didn't pan out.
"Nothing's really guaranteed and golf seemed pretty safe," Orosz said. "If I didn't have cross, I wanted to have something else. Practices are at 6 (p.m.) and I'm trying to run more in the morning. It seems to be working."
Wheeler boys coach Louie Guillen, who also works with the girls team, has high expectations, though he and girls coach Ben Kosal are emphasizing the importance of appreciating the moment.
"We tell them every day tomorrow's not guaranteed with the virus," Guillen said. "The seniors have been a big part of our success. It's one of our more experienced teams and you add in the freshmen, it's up to what they want. From the stuff I read, there's not really a dominant team. There's (Lowell's) Karina James and (Chesterton's) Bailey Ranta, but nobody has two like we do (Orosz and Hellwege). We have two low sticks, we've just got to bring the rest of the team up."