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Swan song: James runs sixth at state, earns mental attitude award; Zelasko, Ranta, Politza all medal

TERRE HAUTE -- It wasn't quite the fanfare of a year earlier, when Karina James won the state championship.

Not that a sixth-place finish isn't cause for celebration, but the bar is set like it is for the Lowell senior, the acclaim isn't going to be quite the same.

"I'm really content right now," said James, who also received the IHSAA mental attitude award. "I know that a lot of people will look at my performance and maybe question it or doubt who I am as an athlete just because I was the state champ last year. For me, it's really bittersweet. I'm looking at it in the grand scheme of things, in terms of my accomplishments over four years. Not many athletes get to say they came all four years. Very few get to say they medal top six three of the four. I feel like I'm humbled. I'm just really appreciative of the opportunities and I think I utilized them."

James was respectfully applauded as she coasted the finish line in 18:30.5, nearly a minute behind Chatard's Lily Cridge, who blazed the field to a 31-second victory at 17:32.7.

"I got out like normal," James said. "The first 400 were pretty speedy. I kind of felt it at the top of the hill, like, ah, my legs are heavy. Hitting that 3K, I was really feeling it. I accepted, if I can hold my spot, I'm good. There's nothing bad about sixth place. That's what people are going to miss, but sixth place is sixth place. That's amazing, especially for Indiana, where we're not divisions."

Ironically, a case of the nerves got the best of James, who got sick before the start of the race.

"I finished on empty. I have nothing in my system," she said. "I think I got wrapped up in all the expectations everyone had for me, defending my title. The only thing I had to prove was to myself. I'm proud of myself. I've had a really great career. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'm ready for what's next. What's happening next is exciting and what's in the past was exciting, too. Those top three are going for national titles and so am I. I still have three more races, another month of training. It's all part of the journey."

The mental attitude award was a fitting honor for someone who had become such a sterling ambassador for her school and her sport.

"Karina always wants to lift people up," coach Scott Coil said. "She wants to be a role model and wants to help bring out the best of people when racing. She is a great example of someone who took her craft seriously and poured everything she had into being the best she could. She wasn’t a heralded runner in middle school, but she worked herself into a top-flight runner. I know she would have loved to defend her state title, but winning that award was definitely fulfilling for her. She takes her persona just as seriously as her accomplishments."

Karina James of Lowell and Kaylie Politza get out strong at the start of Saturday's state meet.

James, the defending champion, finished sixth with Politza coming in 13th.

James was the top runner out of the New Prairie Semistate, with the Cougars' Lillian Zelasko ninth in 18:44.

"I'm so happy," Zelasko said. "I was really wanting top 20. It didn't matter what place I got. Anywhere, I didn't care. I went out there, I felt good, I was just going to keep pushing, see how far I can get up there. Last year, I learned it's always going to be hard if you don't get out here. I went out hard, hopefully it put me in position, and it did. I don't have much of a kick, so I expect to get passed, but I'm glad I could hold onto my spot. After today, my confidence is really going to go up It shows I can compete. I'm excited to see what else I can do."

For the time being, Zelasko was eager for a rare indulgence as post-race celebration: fast food.

"I told her she gets to eat some fun food now," NP coach Julie Beakas said. "Lilly knows what she's doing. I'm stoked for her. We talked about top 20 -- that was the goal. My actual goal was top 10. Coming in ninth, I'm beyond proud. She did what she had to do. We knew she had to get out and she did. She's been practicing that all year. She was where she belongs."

Chesterton's Bailey Ranta took 12th, but the number doesn't do her finish justice. The Trojans senior staggered in the closing meters and fell just a handful of strides from the line, slowly getting to her hands and knees before getting back to her feet to complete the race upright.

"I just kind of threw myself across the finish line," Ranta said. "I really wanted that medal. I knew I had a little bit left. I wanted to give it everything. I just wanted to get over it."

Ranta had a substantial margin of distance, so she ceded only one spot, clocking 18:56.3. It was a feeling of vindication for her on a course that has not been particularly kind to her. After placing 92nd as a sophomore, Ranta did finish the state race last season. When she and Chesterton returned to Lavern Gibson for this year's early-season meet, she won, though she had to crawl to complete it.

"I really used that to my advantage," Ranta said. "I ended on a good note, so I'm really happy. I really just had to push through mentally. Everything that's happened throughout my career, how many times I passed up the state medals while I was here, I didn't want that to happen. I thank God. I truly wouldn't be here without Him. I wouldn't be here without my teammates and parents and everybody's who supported me throughout the years."

Kaylie Politza of Valparaiso followed Ranta in 13th at 19:01.8, one place off her 2020 showing.

"It's now what I hoped for," said Politza, who targeted a top six run. "To be completely honest, I didn't really have a plan coming into this; just have fun with it, be competitive, give it everything. Going in clear-headed, I've said before there's normally a little bit of frenzy in my head. I was looking forward to it. It was kind of nice. The gun went off, I thought about nothing. I had a pretty decent pack in front of me that I tried to hang on to."

After winning the sectional, Politza conceded to have lost a little snap and the season finale was no different.

"I was kind of figuring out after the last couple races, I'm burned out," she said. "It's not mental. My legs were just a bit tired. I did not take a true break after track season, which was probably not a good idea. I went straight into post-season races and it's catching up with me. I had a little bit of (lethargy). I did everything I could, hydrating, eating. I chugged 40 ounces of water this morning. Sometimes it just happens. It's OK. I'll make sure to take a two-week break after this."

Lillian Zelasko of New Prairie (left, middle) finished ninth in Saturday's state cross

country meet, while Bailey Ranta placed 12th.

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