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Lowell's James, Chesterton, Wheeler all run strong at Bob Thomas Invite

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

LOWELL -- A few key points seemed to affirm themselves Saturday as the girls cross country season neared its mid-point at the Bob Thomas Invitational. Chesterton is firmly establishing itself as the top team in the area.

In the first meeting of the top trio of local individuals, Lowell's Karina James showed that all paths must come through her.

There seem to be five or so relatively well-bunched teams who will by vying for state finals berths when (assuming) the semistate rolls around next month, and the one of them that made the loudest statement on this day was the smallest of the bunch, Wheeler.

"It's cool going up against the big schools and telling the girls they can run with them," said Bearcats coach Ben Kosal, who had seven personal bests from his 10 varsity girls. "We know we have the best team we've had since I've been coaching (11 years). The faster girls, the faster schools do not have to be ahead of you. You can be up there with them and beat them. It was a great race. Our three, four, five girls were monsters. They went with the big girls. Hailey and Emma are always going to be up there. For Wheeler to be successful, it's always going to come down to three, four and five, and six and seven."

The meet was Wheeler's first against its larger competition and the Bearcats showed they're going to be in the conversation, at the very least, as they bid for a trip to Terre Haute.

"As a coach, what we're really looking at is, do we keep improving as the season goes on?" Kosal said. "Are the girls getting quicker, stronger, faster as we get closer to the tournament? If somebody else has a bad day, somebody else can step up. We're just trying to keep preparing our girls for the best opportunity they can. They're smiling, giving each other high fives and hugs, but there's more work to do. All the teams are going to keep getting better and we're no different. I'm happy. It's great to see all the success Wheeler is getting."

Though Hailey Orosz (third, 19:22.6) wasn't as close to James and Chesterton's Bailey Ranta as she wanted to be, she's enthused by the team's fortunes.

"It's very cool. This gives us a good idea," Orosz said. "I know there were a couple girls saying they had a really bad day, so hopefully on a good day we'll be better. It's been so long since we've raced against them. I was kind of disappointed in my time more than anything. This was like the first race I've had people in front of me, so I have to get used to that again. I feel like I just put it on cruise control after the first mile. I just wasn't there mentally. You learn, so next week will be different. I tried to hold on, but once I realized they were kind of gone."

Ironically, James wasn't even aware of any such build-up about the Red Division's individual field.

"I genuinely didn't even realize," she said. "Actually, I kind of forgot about all the teams who were coming. They came in, I was like, oh my gosh, they're here and they're here, too. I knew since it was a home meet that I wanted to be able to do what I needed to do. My paces were a little slower this week, but nothing dramatic. They're really talented girls. I knew Hailey and Emma (Hellwege), the Wheeler girls, had been running really well. I think there was a little bit of nerves and a little bit of planning as to how to run the race. I knew there was work to be done."

In the end, there was no drama, as James turned on the jets half way through and breezed to the line in 18:27.6. Ranta checked in at 18:43.8 and Orosz at 19:22.6.

"I didn't want to get myself in a sticky situation at the end where they're tagging along with me," James said. "You have to be able to know your body and be able to predict what's going to happen. When you make that move, it's a big move. You have to be able to go through with it or otherwise it's going to backfire on me. I felt good enough to take off a little earlier. Coach (Scott Coil) mentioned the course record (18:16) right before. I was like, really? Coming around here, I was like, do I go for it? I'm learning to race the watch. It's completely different than having someone on you. I'm working on that a lot lately, just working on the mental aspect."

Ranta had mixed reviews on her performance.

"I was somewhat pleased," she said. "I was kind of hoping I would be a little bit closer to Karina. She's a really good competitor. She really pushes me. I hope I can do better the next time. I knew she was going to (surge) at some point. I kind of had the feeling she was going to do it at the two-mile. I was going to prepare to go with her, but I should've had a closer distance between us. I knew I had some energy left. I'm going to be more prepared (next time). I know what I can do next week to improve. I just have to push myself harder."

There were no team awards given out, though scoring was kept with Chesterton topping Wheeler and Lake Central, 61-80-84, for first, followed by Crown Point (95) and Lowell (104).

"It was a good step in the right direction," said Trojans coach Lindsey Moskalick, who also had Catherine White (eighth) and Bree Gentry (ninth) in the top 10. "I think the girls are finally starting to believe this can be a good season for them, believing in the training, believing in themselves and running the best that they can. It's just getting their confidence with each workout, each race. I'm just as new to it as them with being in the upper tier. We can talk to them all day long about how good they are, but until they believe it and start doing it, it's a different game."

In addition to her top 10 trio, Moskalick is feeling good about the development of freshman Ciara Bonner (15th) and Alyssa Dunlap (27th).

"Bailey and Bre have experience from last year, Catherine is starting to learn, and Ciara's not too far behind Bree and Alyssa," she said. "Each race, they're learning, trying to figure out, perfect their racing strategies so when they get to the post-season and it really matters, they'll know what they're doing when the gun goes off."

In the Red Division race, Boone Grove's Kyra Flesvig took advantage of a navigational error by Kankakee Valley's Emma Bell, who led comfortably but continued to run straight instead of turning left toward the finish line.

"I saw her take a wrong turn and as soon as she kept going, I was thinking, oh no, she went the wrong way," Flesvig said. "That actually happened to me before where I ended up losing. I just thought, finish strong and see what happens."

Flesvig crossed in 20:09.7 with Bell at 20:23.1, losing an estimated 45 seconds with the error.

Morgan Township placed four in the top eight to finish first with 39 points, followed by Hobart (61) and Hanover Central (73).

Lowell's Karina James (left) won

Saturday's Bob Thomas

Invitational, while Crown Point's

Jaelyn Burgos edges Wheeler's

Emma Hellwege for sixth place

in the Red Division race.

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