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Uneasy lies the crown: James rolls to third semistate title; eyes an underdog role for state finals

NEW CARLISLE -- Uneasy lies the crown, so it seems.

Karina James raced to another New Prairie Semistate title Saturday, a sub 18-minute statement the defending state champion felt compelled to make.

"It's hard going into the state meet when you're the underdog to say the least," the Lowell senior said. "That's where I'm at right now. Girls are running 17:30s, so in my head, if I can run 17 by myself, I can run 17 being pushed. For me, it was really important, at least one of my post-season races, to make a standout performance. I needed to break 18 to enter (state) week mentally prepared and confident that I can run with the front pack because they will be in the 17s almost guaranteed. I have to prove it to myself before I prove it to anyone else."

James checked in at 17:55.9, a couple, three clicks off her school record, set at New Prairie when she was a sophomore. Her all-time best was a 17:41 at the Nike Regional on the state meet course in Terre Haute that same year.

"Before the race, I'm thinking, it's time to break my school record," James said. "I felt really great. I was mentally in it. I've had a hard time being mentally in my races this season. I feel almost like, here I am again, another week, another day. This was the first morning I felt the motivation, the adrenaline, to run hard. I needed that. I'm right where I need to be. Every single race this year, I've run faster than I did last year, which is great. I think it's important for a runner to know what they're capable of so they can go against biggest competiition and execute an even greater race."

In typical fashion, James seized the race by the first turn and came home 40 seconds clear of runner-up Lilly Zelasko of New Prairie.

"The pace was definitely controlled," James said. "I have my front dogs with me. I've got Bailey (Ranta), Lillian, Kaylie (Politza). The energy's there. That pushed me as well. I heard 'em. I was supposed to be aggressive from the start to the end and I think I executed that well."

Now James turns her attention to state, where 3,200 state champion and record holder Lily Cridge of Indianapolis Bishop Chatard returns after having to sit out the 2020 post-season due to COVID-19.

"I won't say last year was easy, but it's going to be a harder fight than last year, and I fought to the very end," James said. "I'm excited. I can't to see how it plays out. I'm en route to end my senior year with a PR, which is exactly what I need going into college. The stakes are really high for me. I know I'm ready."

Karina James of Lowell won her third New Prairie Semistate title Saturday, finishing the race in 17:55.9.

Zelasko continued a post-season surge that has seen the New Prairie junior assert herself as the No. 2 runner in northern Indiana.

"I'm happy. I really wasn't expecting to come out and get second," Zelasko said. "As long as I am behind Karina and Kaylie's right there by me, I'll be happy. I was feeling good out there. I decided it was time to make a move and see what happened, and I raced better than I thought I would."

Zelasko checked in at 18:35.8 Ranta third (18:52.4) and Politza fourth (19:00.3). Side by side with Politza for the first mile or so, Zelasko separated from Politza in the woods and settled in behind James.

"I think coming into the tournament, I felt like I didn't belong up there," Zelasko said. "I think I just got used to going out there, that I do belong up there and can run those times, just believing in myself a little more. After running with them now the past few races, it helped me with knowing where I need to be at in races. I've felt things out now."

The next step for Zelasko is a state medal.

"I need to work on my kick a little more to try to close in a little more on the people in front of me," she said. "I'm so excited. I hope I can get on the podium and come back with a medal. As coach says, eat right, sleep right and rest; just chill this week and see what happens."

Ranta followed in 18:52.4.

"We've been working on race strategies with Bailey," Trojans coach Lindsay Moskalick said. "It's not about going all out the first mile, it's about going all out the last mile. That's what she's been doing."

Politza timed 19:00.3.

"Kaylie just had a rough one," Valpo coach John Arredondo said.

Crown Point's Caitlyn Derwinski advanced to state, finishing 17th, side by side with Avery Olthoff of Illiana Christian, who made history as her school's first state qualifier.

Kaylie Politza of Valparaiso and New Prairie's Lillian Zelasko run side by side during Saturday's New Prairie Semistate. Zelasko finished second and Politza fourth.

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