NEW CARLISLE -- The Region's top runners all toed the start line together for the first time Saturday at the New Prairie Invitational, and defending state champion Karina James of Lowell maintained her top status with a six-second win over Valparaiso's Kaylie Politza.
Chesterton's Bailey Ranta followed in third with East Noble freshman Addison Lindsey fourth and New Prairie's Lilly Zelasko fifth.
"It's so great to have someone on my shoulder," James said. "(Kaylie and I) were like supporting each other, even Valpo people, Lowell people, Region people in general, it was Kaylie and Karina, it wasn't one-sided, it was so nice to finally see. I was glad I got to move up to AAA so I could feel that. It was really the best thing for me and the team understood."
With the rest of the Red Devils running earlier in the AA race, James endured the rising late-morning heat to finish in 18 minutes, 12.1 seconds, 6.2 ahead of Politza, before heading out to catch a plane to Philadelphia, where she is spending the balance of the weekend at the University of Penn on a recruiting visit.
"The heat really hit me again," James said. "Last week, we ran at eight and our course has some shade. Then the sun gets you at like the hardest parts of the race. But the time was not as significant. You may see during the race check my watch, which kills my coaches. It's good to know where you stand when you get the opportunity, but once you learn to compete, the time falls in to place. You have to learn how to compete to be able to compete at faster times."
Politza was the only contender, staying with James for about two miles.
"She's awesome," Politza said of James. "It's really awesome having her pushing so hard. She pushes me to go hard. It's awesome having such amazing, talented girls to run with. I'm incredibly blessed to have that. I was good for the first two miles. I think the pace might have gotten to me. Right at the two-mile mark, my legs got very heavy. Sometimes, that happens. I wanted to see how long I can hang on. I've got to learn not to cut tangents too close. I tripped and fell after Agony (Hill). I was OK though. You fall, oh well. It made the race more interesting."
The trio of Ranta, Lindsey and Zelasko comprised a mini-race of their own before also separating, Ranta hitting the line in 18:37.8 and Lindsey in 18:46.5.
"Bailey didn't get out as aggressive as normal," Chesterton coach Lindsay Moskalick said. "She wanted it to be a steadier pace, which worked out fine. We knew she'd be top three. It was a semistate preview with all of us running together. We got a taste of what we're doing."
Zelasko, who stayed within nine seconds of James a few weeks ago in West Lafayette, timed 18:53.3.
"It's our first time racing Valpo, some of the other schools here," Zelasko said. "I wish my time was a little better, but I was happy I was under 19 considering the heat. My goal was to stay with the top two, but I kind of fell off. I realized around the two-mile, I wasn't probably going to catch back up, so it was just try to put in the best effort I could the last mile to make up the gap that was created. I've got to realize the beginning's going to be harder than what I'm anticipating. I have to get out there and establish where I want to be instead of hanging back. The pace probably isn't going to slow down. I need to get back to them."
Emma Hellwege of Wheeler, the runner-up to James a week earlier at Lowell, breezed to the Class A victory in 19:47.04, pacing teammate Elise Byers up until the two-mile mark.
"We weren't in 2A this year, which I thought was fine considering we race every weekend," Hellwege said. "Last year, we kind of had an off weekend, just no meet, and they said it helped us, so that's kind of what I took this as. It was slower, more laid back. Usually, if we're running against teams our size, our conference isn't that big, the Bearcat Invite, there's some races I can choose what I want to do. I was kind of feeling under the weather this week; I don't know if it's allergies or a head cold, it's kind of the same symptoms, but I was a little stuffed up. I was was around 13 minutes (for two miles). That's usually above a 20-minute 5K, but I was in the 19s, so I'm more than happy with that."
Kouts won the Class A team title with 82 points, a 40-point margin over Winamac, led by Anyssa Heinold (fifth, 20:41.5) and freshman Jenna Twedt (12th).
"This win's going to mean more to my girls because I'm trying to pull them together," coach Perry Heinold said. "We're still trying to get healthy, working on our one through four getting tighter. We're pleased. It was a nice performance. It's just getting them to come together as a team and run as five. Anyssa's really stepped up. She was our No. 4 last year and has been our No. 1. That's huge. Jenna's stepped in for the one senior we had."
Chesterton and Valparaiso established themselves as semistate favorites, lapping the AAA field, 76-84, with East Noble a distant third (146).
"It's nice to finally run against Valpo -- they're a great team -- to see where we match up with them," Trojans assistant Nicole Hartford Rago said. "It's a preview of the DAC with the other schools being here, being on the semistate course. I think we had some positives. We had some girls step up. We got out a little slower than we were hoping. It's hard to move up on this course, parts where there are tight turns, that are very narrow, but we did excellent job, especially Bree (Gentry), Catherine (White), Alyssa (Dunlap), of moving up."
White was seventh and Dunlap 19th for the Trojans.
"The big thing is making sure we have more than normal five," Moskalick said. "Grace (Carpenter) was able to step up. Ciara (Brown) had a little bit of a down race, so that shows the depth we have."
Cheyanne Stock (10th) and Anita Anderson (20th) backed Politza for Valpo.
"We're running well," Vikings coach John Arredondo said. "We ran fast last week, and it's hard to run fast two weeks in a row. It really was us and them, and a huge gap. Looking down the (awards) line, it was green, yellow, green, yellow. The girls are getting confident. They need that unlike any other team. We know we're right there. I'm really happy with our depth. We have nine, 10 that can run varsity."
Illiana Christian was a point back of South Bend St. Joseph in the Class AA race, 117-118, with Morgan Township (130) third. Emma Bell of Kankakee Valley was the top local finisher in sixth.
Karina James of Lowell won the Class AAA title in Saturday's New Prairie Invitational, while Wheeler's Emma Hellwege was the Class A champion.