LOWELL -- The NICK (Northwest Indiana Cancer Kids) Foundation held its annual 5K run Sunday.
Ben Perschon couldn't participate since he's in the middle of his high school cross country season at Lake Central, but the charity race will always be something special to the Indians sophomore.
Not only is his grandmother, Kate Perschon, the founder and co-president of the Schererville-based organization, it is where Ben first discovered his distance running prowess back in sixth grade.
"I was working the lemonade stand and I asked my grandma if I could run it," he said. "She said, oh yeah, sure. I had on cargo shorts, my tennis shoes were falling apart. I get a bib and ran."
You can probably figure out where this story line is headed.
"I go and win it," Perschon said. "I was running against a bunch of people training for marathons. I'd went for a two-mile run a couple times, but I've never raced before. I was going to sign up for track (in seventh grade) but that was COVID year. My grandpa ran in his 40s for a mid-life crisis. My aunt and uncle are runners. I was a big swimmer. I still swim, I'm just not as good. I did a bunch of participation sports, soccer, karate, T-Ball. Swimming was the first sport I actually paid attention to, took seriously. It used to be my main sport. "
Perschon's running star soon began to rise, as he finished second in the middle school cross country state finals.
"It takes a little toll on you to get second in a meet like that, to know you were almost there and didn't get it," he said. "The course over there is the conference course. I have a couple records."
Perschon was pointing across the vast expanse of grass on the campus of Lowell High School, where he won his first high school cross country race Saturday, holding off Joey LaPatra of Griffith in the Bob Thomas Invitational.
"I'm glad I finally got my first win," said Perschon, who won the track regional as a freshman in the 1,600. "It's something I felt like I've needed to do for a while now. Joey beat me at Chesterton. The entire race, I'm thinking, he's good, how am I going to do this? Most of the time, he was drafting behind me. It's not fun doing it but it's fun to look at the pictures. Joey talked a lot. He's a big talker. It's never trash. If it's talking, it's one or two words and it's not often. There was a shoe over there and we were just going on about it."
The pair were side by side in the final stretch when Perschon inched ahead, doing a muscle flex as he hit the finish line in 15:57.75, not quite half a second in front of LaPatra.
"My leg's been kind of stiff," Perschon said. "It's good right now, but I feel like in a couple hours I'm going to feel it. There's a lot of sickness all around. I'm glad to see a lot of our team, not all of them, is back up to full speed."
Lake Central won the team title in impressive fashion with a tidy 28 points. Crown Point (100) was well back in second. La Porte, which is the only team to beat the Indians this season, didn't compete.
"It was rough. Our No. 2 and No. 4 didn't even make the trip," LC coach Jeff Rhody said. "We're trying to get them healthy again, so we felt like we needed to race. Every coach, every program has their own way. We like our guys to race. They're still learning how to race, even though they're seniors. They're going to learn something, win, lose or otherwise. Our usual No. 2 (Austin Wojcik) was our No. 7. He didn't race last week. He just gutted it out. Riley (Petrovich) is sick, he gutted it out. Ben tested for COVID after Skorupa. We're coming back. We're going to be OK. We've still got some work to do. We've got a bunch of great kids."
LC placed five more in the top 12 behind Perschon with Roger Ochoa fourth, Evan Smith fifth, Kris Garner seventh, Petrovich 11th and Sebastian Groszek 12th.
"We've got some good senior leadership," Rhody said. "We had a good year last year. They were still learning to be the varsity guys. Ben, we had to give him time to figure some things out, get used to the mileage. A lot of them had a good track season. Coach (Alex) Thompson did a great job. A couple were under 9:40 for two miles, Ben ran 4:18 (1,600). The talent's there. It's just that they want to do it. It's Kris' first time doing cross country. He pole vaulted. Coach Thompson said, hey, you need to come out for cross country, and here he is, on our varsity on a pretty good team. We're so happy to have him. He wants to do it, which fit into the mold."
The youngest of the group, the 15-year old Perschon has settled in as the pack leader.
"It might be the best year for Lake Central distance ever," he said. "I'm just honored to be a part of it."
Rhody has been duly impressed by the progress.
"You've got to go out and do it, but he came in with the mindset that he was good," Rhody said. "He ran with us before his eighth grade year. We knew he was very talented. He just had to learn how to race. A 16:20 as a freshman is pretty good, now he's running 15:33. He's a great kid. He lives, eats and breathes running. What can I do? What's next? He truly loves to run. We don't have to tell him to run on Sunday. He's showing himself to be pretty durable. He's taken everything we've thrown at him and handled it well."
Lake Central's Ben Perschon flexes as he reaches the finish line first, just ahead of Griffith's Joey LaPatra, in Saturday's Bob Thomas Invitational at Lowell. (Photo by Jim Peters)