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Lucky 13: Freshman Okeley boosts Wheeler's bid for a state finals berth

UNION TOWNSHIP -- There's been something special about Lucca Okeley from the time she was 5.

After two, three months of Kindergarten, she was advanced to first grade.

"I think I was just taught everything in pre-school," Okeley said.

As a result, the Wheeler freshman has always been the youngest kid in her class, and we're not just talking a few months, we're talking over a year.

"I think it's just something I got used to," Okeley said. "It doesn't really bother me anymore."

It certainly hasn't been an issue in sports, where Okeley, who doesn't even turn 14 for nearly two months, is a scoring runner on a Bearcats cross country team that looks to qualify for the program's first state meet in today's New Prairie Semistate. Now throw in the fact that she has been juggling the sport with club soccer -- she's on a travel team in Grand Rapids, Michigan -- for the last four years.

"I've been playing (soccer) since I was 4," she said. "In sixth grade, I decided to do cross country and track as conditioning for soccer. I decided I wanted to keep doing it, and I really like it now. I've always worked hard. I've always been running."

Wheeler boys coach and girls assistant Louie Guillen teaches seventh grade and spotted Okeley right away after he family moved to Union Township from Kankakee Valley, where she a soccer and cross country teammate of fellow freshman phenom Emma Bell.

"I knew she was special from the beginning," Guillen said. "She was our No. 1 right away on the middle school team. She's very talented. I knew we were going to have to share her with soccer. I just didn't know what her commitment was in terms of the high school team or the club team. Her parents are really great at communicating with us."

Okeley opted to do club soccer instead of school soccer since she thought it would give her more flexibility with cross country. Still, she makes the two-and-a-half hour trip twice during the week and again on the weekends with the family of a close friend in Valparaiso.

"I was a little worried about it, trying to manage soccer and cross country, the more workouts I had to put in," she said. "High school soccer is a little different. It's more work, so I decided to do club and to do this. I usually get my run done in the morning, then I have soccer right after school, then I get home and do homework. It's a long day, but I've managed it pretty well."

On the cross country side, the Wheeler staff is cognizant of the wear and tear potential on all athletes, let alone a 13-year old, so they're sure not to overload her in training.

"She has a lot of ability, a lot of upside," Guillen said. "She's been learning this whole season. We definitely monitor her training, making sure we're not doing too much too soon. She is young, so we've got to be smart with that. We're all on the same page. It's been working out."

Wheeler freshman Lucca Okeley, 13, and cousin Hailey Orosz, a senior, look to help the Bearcats to the program's first state meet berth in history in today's New Prairie Semistate. (Photo Courtesy of Louie Guillen)

While Wheeler relies heavily on two freshmen and a sophomore, it does have four seniors, including Okeley's cousin, Hailey Orosz, and junior Emma Hellwege to provide a guiding hand.

"We've got a good group," Guillen said. "There are a lot of girls she can ask for advice. The less is more philosophy is always best with the mental side of anything. You put more and more pressure on them, it's not going to work. Everything is just chill, relax. We give them an option in terms of how they want to do things, listening to their bodies. We're just running on talent, and everything else will fall in to place."

Okeley had the race of her young career in the regional, placing 16th as Wheeler put five runners in the top 20 to finish second, its best-ever showing in the meet, eight points behind eighth-ranked Chesterton. She was the team's No. 2 in the sectional, finishing 13th.

"You give them a race plan, Lucca's the type where if we need her to be somewhere, she'll be there," Guillen said.

Whether it's innocence of youth or simply a chill demeanor, Okeley doesn't seem fazed by the magnitude of the moment.

"The girls are all super supportive. They've made me feel so welcome here," she said. "We're all working very hard. We've been working hard since summer. I think it's going to pay off. We have some great coaches getting us ready. We're all super excited."

As for continuing the fall double, something Boone Grove's Jordan Chester mastered years back, Okeley doesn't see it changing.

"(The coaches) both accepted it," she said. "I think I'm always going to do both of them. I like them too much."

Guillen is confident it won't take an extraordinary performance for Wheeler to be happy with the results, simply a solid showing.

"After the top four, five to nine is a coin flip," he said. "We've beaten (most of) those teams before. Nobody has to run crazy, just don't go out and lay an egg. Lake Central has a nice pack, but we have two frontrunners and then a pack. Valpo, it depends on if (Cheyanne) Stock gets back. I think we can still beat them. We're racing well. Keeping 'em healthy and happy is

Freshman Lucca Okeley has been a key contributor to Wheeler in its push for the program's first state berth.

(Photo courtesy of Louie Guillen)

the name of the game. I think they're excited, ready to go. We're excited to hop on this ride and see if we can make history."

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