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Politza, Wheeler lead the way at Highland

HIGHLAND -- At a point in the season when rest and maintenance are the rule, Kaylie Politza was the exception at Saturday's Highland Invitational.

"I've got to get a couple more races in to be able to run in the post-season," the Valparaiso junior said.

The transfer from Lemont, Illinois, who made her Indiana debut a week earlier at New Prairie, claimed her first victory in the Hoosier State, hitting the line in 18:57.4. The race was run in two waves separated by two-and-a-half minutes and when the times were combined, Politza was determined to be the winner, comfortably ahead of Kankakee Valley freshman Emma Bell (19:41.1), who hustled off right afterward for a soccer match.

"I actually thought it was really cool because there were a lot of people to chase, which is really helpful, to be like at a mile mark, try and pass that one, then push it hard and go after another one," Politza said. "It gives you an extra boost, something to look forward to. You could see exactly where you were going, make a little milestone, like get to that tree and start and the pick-up. It's not a boring course. It's very scenic, which is nice, too. I'm a little happier with my time, getting back into the 18s. I wish could've gone mid-18s maybe, but it's a stepping stone."

The largely flat layout was reminiscent to Illinois courses, which contrast in difficulty to many Indiana spreads.

"It was pretty familiar," she said. "I like true cross country courses, but I didn't have to worry about going up a lot of hills and killing myself on it. I've still got to figure out the 5K thing. I took it out a good amount. I think could improve my strategy, that middle to end, three-quarters point, do a little more work on that. I wouldn't say I struggled, but my legs were kind of feeling it that last three-quarters of the race. That's just more work, more hills."

Valpo coach John Arredondo saw progress in Politza's second race as a Viking.

"She needed to get some more races," he said. "Obviously she hasn't run cross country for a while. There was really no strategy. I told her just go out and do what you want to do. She took it out really hard. She was saying she still has something left in the tank, so that's a positive. We're trying to get us as a coaching staff synced up with her. We're very satisfied. To see her catch so many girls in the first wave, I was kind of surprised, I was, like, whoa, she really moved up. I think that helped some girls. We had some monster PRs. You always have somebody to chase. I told them at the start line you're going to have girls to catch the whole race, use it to your advantage. It's all about getting tuned up for next week."

The Vikings ran three varsity runners but otherwise used the meet as a chance to give their reserves a chance to race.

"We have such a big team (37) we had girls who have only had one race this season," Arredondo said.

While most teams held out their top sevens in advance of conference meets in the coming week, Wheeler was close to all systems go, having held its Greater South Shore Conference meet several weeks ago, when there were concerns about the longevity of the season.

"We have the (next) week off, so we trained hard this week," Bearcats coach Ben Kosal said. "They're going to start going into the tournament and other girls aren't going to be running. Half of them are going to be done. This is their last race. We know the top seven are going to keep progressing. We were looking at the other girls. We went after it and they responded. I couldn't be more proud."

Wheeler was minus No. 1 Hailey Orosz and No. 6 Dottie Heuring, who are both recovering from lower back strains. Even so, the Bearcats eased to the team title with 64 points, followed by Lake Central (90), which bunched four girls between 13th and 17th, and Valpo (109).

"They're starting to run a little more, getting better, feeling stronger," Kosal said. "They're getting ready to find the fire again."

Emma Hellwege placed third with Emily Enright, Lucca Okeley and Elise Byers crossing in succession, seventh, eighth and ninth.

"We had a lot of PRs," Kosal said. "Our No. 5 (Sarah Gerbick) had a lifetime PR (21:47.1). As a senior, she's going out with a bang. She's proving she deserved to be here. She's here to run fast. Everyone of them impressed us. We're not done, we keep telling them. There's bigger fish to fry. We'll keep training because we know what our potential is. We're looking at the big prize in the sky -- that's state."

The race was a showcase of young local talent with 12 freshmen placing in the top 23.


Valparaiso's Kaylie Politza, left, won Saturday's Highland Invitational with Emma Hellwege of Wheeler placing third. The Bearcats won the team title. (Photo courtesy of Barry Poole)

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