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Leaving no doubts: James dominates New Prairie Semistate -- again

NEW CARLISLE -- Sometimes, being the best can draw unwarranted detractors.

Karina James knows the pratfalls that can come with the territory, and the Lowell junior does everything she can, short of not winning of course, to gain a positive reputation, as a runner and a person.

"You can get a target on your back, when you progress at the rate I've progressed, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I don't want to be the girl everyone wishes would lose," James said after cruising to Saturday's New Prairie Semistate title. "I want them to think of me as someone who's not conceited. It's about me being a role model in the region, in the entire state, a person to look at with pride as someone who's worked hard on her craft.

There aren't many runners who can keep up with me, but I hope they can at least use me to their advantage, pace themselves off me to better themselves, to run a good race."

James made it hard on anybody to work off her pace in this race, crossing the timing mat in 18:08.4, 24.4 clicks ahead of Chesterton's Bailey Ranta, to defend her crown.

"I've actually spoken with the (Lowell) boys coach (Jake Rakoczy), and he said the boys have a tendency to go out the first 400 a little quicker," James said. "I've tried it a couple times and it wasn't too successful. I tried it (again), and it felt OK. It turned out the best it has yet. I got out, I felt good. I was excited to race with (Ranta), to have someone come and push me."

That changed when Ranta didn't chase James early, settling into the second spot.

"I've been trying to break 18 (minutes) the entire season, and I had to make the decision actually right here, 1.25 miles in, am I that motivated to break it?" James said. "I wasn't feeling it. I believe my body, so I decided today was not the day. I trusted myself in my decision. Two miles, I was actually still right on pace. I don't know what happened the last mile, but I'm completely satisfied the way it turned out. (At regionals), I felt good and had a great time on a hard course. Today, maybe it was my body recovering from that. I felt just OK, not the greatest. It wasn't worth taxing myself. I know people may say, oh, she had a faster time last year (17:53.4), but I ran slower at state, so I want to be smart for next week. It'll all tie together in the end."

Lowell's Karina James sets the early pace on her way to winning the New Prairie Semistate on Saturday. Alexis Allen (Culver Academies), Bailey Ranta (Chesterton) and Kaylie Politza finished third, second and fourth, respectively, to also qualify for state.

Ranta's runner-up finish paced Chesterton to the team title (see related story), followed by Lemont, Illinois transfer Kaylie Politza of Valparaiso (18:44.4), which also had Cheyanne Stock (seventh) return strong. New Prairie's Lilly Zelasko, whose dad Brian was part of the school's state runner-up team in the mid-90s, qualified by finishing sixth (18:54.5) and Portage's Morgan McCulloch, another legacy -- her dad Vince was a past Indians standout -- placed 11th (19:11.9).

"I went last year to watch the boys, and thought, I want to be here so bad next year," Zelasko said. "I'm so happy. Last year, I didn't make it. It really means a lot. I tried to get out there. I knew it was going to be a fast start, so I had to get where I needed to be. I wanted to be like fifth. It would have been better if it wasn't so muddy. It definitely took a lot of pressure off, knowing I could just run like I normally run and I would qualify. It was just a lot of miles over the summer, a lot of hard work."

Ella Bensz of La Porte, a second-year runner who came to the sport from volleyball as a junior, finished 10th in a personal-best 19:09.2.

"It's crazy," Bensz said. "I definitely didn't expect it. Coming into cross country, I wasn't thinking I would even be a varsity runne and here I am, going to state. I don't know what to say. I've had big improvement all season. We were focusing on semistate, running my best race, no matter the conditions, the weather, and run a PR. I came in ranked 11th, so I didn't have all the stress put on me. I just had to run my race and I was going to state. That was big mentally, just to come in and have fun. It went out pretty fast, so I had to get in position. I knew I was in the right place, so I just had to hold my spot."

Inside the last half-mile, Bensz couldn't help but smile when she heard coach Corbin Slater yell, 'You're going to state.'

"The second mile, I heard my team, and I knew I was going to state," she said. "I already knew, but it was just so much different in the moment. It was good to hear. It take my mind off the race for a second."

Crown Point's Jaelyn Burgos squeaked out the final individual berth (14th, 19:27.9).

Ella Bensz of La Porte paces a pack of runners in the opening mile of Saturday's New Prairie Semisiate. The Slicers senior, in only her second year of cross country, finished 10th to qualify for the state finals, along with Crown Point's Jaelyn Burgos and Portage's Morgan McCulloch. Chesterton won the team title.

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