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Meeting the challenge: Lowell's James uses late surge to capture state title

TERRE HAUTE -- Competition.

It drives all the top athletes, no matter what the sport.

The challenge of matching up with opponents of comparable talent is the ultimate adrenaline rush.

Lowell's Karina James rode it to a state title at the Lavern Gibson Championship Course on Saturday morning.

"Honestly, this is the first time I've had competition this season, the first time I've had someone with me the entire race," the Red Devils junior said. "I really wanted to use the competition that would be here to my advantage. I don't think this race was about time, I just needed the competition to show up."

James had Zoe Duffus to thank for that. She and the Carroll junior went stride for stride for the better part of 5,000 meters. Inside of 200 meters to go, as James' watch clicked three miles, she made her winning move, gaining every so slight separation to hit the line in 18:00.1, just over two ticks in front of Duffus.

Lowell's Karina James smiles as she hits the finish line first in Saturday's state cross country finals at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute.

"I felt it on my watch, the three-mile hit, and I tried to get a little stride going," James said. "I'm not used to a race being so close at the end. It was just a matter of going. I tend to have a good, strong finish. (Duffus) has great foot speed. She's run some great mile times. I had an idea when to start, like, point one, oh, you can go. There's no point in waiting, so I took it. I had no idea how close she was. I thought I was putting on distance, then I felt her come up, I saw her arm, and that really pushed me to have one last final surge."

As James crossed the timing mat, she broke out a big smile, knowing she was Indiana's champion.

"It was 100 percent the idea that I had the best chance to win a state championship," she said. "That played a factor into everything I did. I made sure to get the right amount of sleep, to eat right. I really practiced COVID guidelines this week. We shaped the race into the idea of winning a state title. ."

James seized a clear lead in the opening straightaway, establishing her presence in the lead group with Duffus, Carmel's Annie Christie, and North Central's Anna Baker.

"I try to get out in 75 seconds in the first 400," she said. "We really shaped the idea of elite runners getting out fast, so I've been practicing that start, shooting out, positioning myself well from start. That sets you up for a great race. I didn't change anything in that aspect. I wasn't stalking my watch."

Lowell's Karina James runs to an early lead in Saturday's state championship race.

Lowell coach Scott Coil said a modest early pace played into James' plan.

"It's a strategy (boys) coach (Jake) Rakoczy talked about," Coil said. "This week in practice, we took some time to talk about the course, good angles, where she needs to be. I told her basically everything we've done has led up to today, you're ready for whatever type of race is going to happen. With the two girls who ended up not competing (2019 runner-up Annalyssa Crane and third-place finisher Madeline Keller), they're known for getting out real fast. We thought it would get out a little tepid and it did, which played into her hands. I saw her at the mile, I knew she going to be in it, that she would have a chance."

Around the halfway point, Coil saw James with the lead trio and urged her to go.

"We knew Duffus would start pushing after they got past the start. She's just got to keep up," he said. "I told her, we need to race. If she gets to the point where she wants to go, go; make a decision, don't hesitate. We know how far we have in terms of a kick. It just happened to be with 100, 150 to go. We don't get the opportunity to run crazy fast times, but we're used to running on hills; just make sure you position yourself so you have a shot."

Afterward, while hanging out with a contingent of family that drove down together Friday in the family's 12-person van, James talked about relishing the rare role of not being expected to win, at least outside of Northwest Indiana anyway.

"I kind of like that," she said. "Before today, I was was an underdog, which is honestly nice. People don't have to know your name. You can keep it low key. They can ask you about your training. The Region knew me. The Indy girls are so talented, it's usually their names that override the Region. That's usually me tendency. I don't look at rankings in the post-season. I log out of my account, keep it low key. I'm just proud that it's from the Region. I'm really happy to be a part of the movement that's happening in the Region. I heard it all over the course. I think it's being missed far too often. It's all for the people and the man upstairs."

James gives Lowell a state champ for the second straight year, following current IU freshman Gabe Sanchez, the 2019 boys champ.

"To have state champs in consecutive years, it's crazy," she said. "I'm happy to be a part of that. I wanted to use this race to my advantage. I think a lot of doors will open after today."

Karina James of Lowell flexes the guns atop her dad Tim's shoulders following her victory in the state meet Saturday.

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