TERRE HAUTE -- Even though she was new to Indiana high school cross country, Kaylie Politza wasn't new to the LaVern Gibson Championship Course.
The Valparaiso junior ran in the NXR Regional there last fall, an experience that she put to good use in Saturday's state finals meet.
"It's such a great course, true cross country," Politza said. "It's a mix of flat and hills, rolling, long straightaways. It's just awesome to run on. I went out too fast and died really early, so I focused on making sure not to do that."
It paid off in the form of a medal for Politza, who finished 11th in 18:36.4
"It's kind of typical of me to try to go out really hard," she said. "The past few races have really taught me to have a strategy for each race, each course, and having the that experience really helped me figure out what to do. I just focused on running my race and not anybody else's. Taking it a little easier at the start, I was able to make some moves on the hills and start my kick a little earlier, maybe 400 left, and pass a few people in the final stretch."
For Politza, it was the exclamation point on a season that started for the Lemont, Illinois transfer at the New Prairie Invitational. She qualified for state as a freshman and a sophomore, placing fifth in Class 2A last fall.
"I was pretty calm. I wasn't as nervous as I usually am," she said. "I was listening to a lot of music to drown everything out. I like
Valpo's Kaylie Politza finished 11th Saturday
in the state finals meet.
listening to motivational podcasts. I like the fact that (Indiana has) no classes. You're racing against everybody, not just a certain group of people. I was really excited there were so many people all on the same level, so many people chasing you, so many people to catch. There was just a lot of motivation."
Back in Illinois, her former teammates were running in the sectional, the equivalent of Indiana's regional, and she was anxious to find out how her friends did in what would be their season finale.
"I have to text my old coach to see how did," Politza said. "I really hope they did good."
Politza's showing paced a surprising eighth-place finish for the Vikings, who let out a yell each time the awards announcer read off another team inside of the top 15.
"The coaches grabbed me after the race and they could see it in my face. We did decent, we did well," Valpo coach John Arredondo said. "I slotted us probably 16 to 20 and we ran better than that. We didn't get out like we wanted them to. I think the young girls especially were a little overwhelmed at the beginning. It appeared they battled back. The girls were all smiling. The goal was always run our best at the semistate and state. They really bought in this year. I can't commend team enough for buying what we were selling."
Cheyanne Stock placed 38th (19:20.8) for the Vikings, who totaled 276 points.
"Kaylie ran awesome," Arredondo said. "She followed the race plan perfectly. This is such a hard course, a lot of girls go out fast and it eats you up if you're not smart. She put herself right where she needed to be. Our goal was to get her on the podium and try to finish in the top 15. Cheyanne ran great. Grace (Thomas) been hurt the last three weeks she just ran a gutty race. She was 10 seconds off her time last year on a bum foot."
Prospects are high for a Valpo squad that ran no seniors at state, assuming, of course, Politza returns.
"I hope so," she said. "I like both equally. It's nice here, it's nice there."
Wheeler, in its first state meet, placed 18th with 420 points.
"We were rated as high as 13th and as low as 24th," Bearcats coach Ben Kosal said. "Even before we got the results, I said I hope we walk out of here with 18th. About five minutes later, they said we got 18th. I'm ecstatic right now. To know there are only 17 teams ahead of us and some of those have 4,000, 5,000 kids. It's the best cross country team I've ever coached, that Wheeler has ever had. They're going to back to school champions for all of us. Even though they were 18th, in our eyes, they're the best team out here, the best dressed, the biggest hearts, the hardest working. We couldn't be more proud."
Hailey Orosz led Wheeler in 30th in 19:10.9 with Emma Hellwege 90th (20:03).
"We just told them to run their hardest, do their very best," Kosal said. "The three seniors, we kept telling them, this is your last race as a high school student. We've had a lot of tears the last couple days, good tears, tears of joy. They ran their best races. The 'three amigas' just powered through. These Wheeler girls deserve a lot of credit. They worked their tails off all year. They earned their spots and those times. They ran their hearts out. What better thing can a coach ask?"
Orosz competed in her third state, having qualified individually the last two years.
"It just feels, it's incredible, I can't even put it into words," she said. "This is the only team that has supported me like this. Without them, I wouldn't have been here. I'm so thankful they've given me the opportunity to come back and have one last race. I was happy with how I performed considering I've run really bad the past three races. I'm thankful I ran like I did. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I just tried to take it all in and still run my race."
Chesterton, the top local team most of the season, struggled to 20th place (444) with Lake Central 23rd (468).
"We were hoping to crack into the top 10, maybe close to the top five, being semistate champs, but you learn how important all seven is," Trojans coach Lindsay Moskalick said. "It's not just always about the top five. Everyone's got to come through and run their best and unfortunately it didn't happen for us. Out of our seven, only two have run this race, so it comes down to the experience part. It's just being mentally ready to run. You've got 208 of the best runners in the state of Indiana, it can be overwhelming."
Bailey Ranta, the area's No. 2 runner behind Lowell state champion Karina James, was 13th with 600 meters to go but faded badly in the stretch to finish 160th.
Other top 50 finishers from the Region were La Porte's Ella Bensz (32nd) and Portage's Morgan McCulloch (34th).
"I wasn't expecting it," Bensz said. "I was projected top 50, so I didn't think I would be that close to the front people. I did see a lot of Region people around me at first. I heard names
like Cheyanne, Hailey. I really focused on picking out new people because I wanted to push myself. I went all out. The biggest thing was to come in calm, which is what I always do. I had a strong finish. I felt really bad, nut I pushed through it. I had all the coaches running next to me, which really helped. It's unbelievable. Like I've been saying, I never thought I'd go from volleyball to cross country and do what I've done."
Ella Bensz of La Porte finished 32nd in Saturday's state cross country meet.