I'm not going to lie; after how well everyone raced at Conference, I was a briefly worried that we would experience a let down this week. But as I watched this group of eight practice all week, I realized that this group does not back down. Aside from this race, there were so many highlights this week: the ladder workout where the eight seemed to simply float with ease through each interval; or the light feeling I experienced as this group played at a new park and laughed as they ran along the beauty of Beulah's leaves. Last year, I was so nervous on the starting line at the Regional at Lake Forest; I knew what that team could do, but I didn't feel 100% confident that we would make it through to the Sectional as a team. Perhaps it was because it had been so long, but this year, the energy was different. Maybe it was because there were flights, but likely, it's because of the confidence this team has built all season.
The race was in three flights, and the first featured our top three. Fitted in black and pink and looking simply fierce, Audrey, Kelsey, and Maya took off with the gun. Taking my advice, Audrey ran a controlled first mile with Kelsey with Maya in sight behind her. Heading into the second mile, Audrey opened up and started chasing the others who went out too fast. She kept growing in confidence in the race, looking fierce with her laser-focused eyes. I could tell that she would break the top five of the race, and she did. With an impressive second half, she pulled into 4th, earning All-Regional honors for the first time in her career. On a day where places mattered much more than times, Audrey set the table for our mission to earn another week of XC. Kelsey had a similar arc in her race. After working well with Audrey in the first half, Kelsey kept working the woods and pulling on Audrey's lead. To be honest, my only real worry of the day was whether or not her leg would handle going up Grant's hill every time. I was stoked to watch her drive up with great form and continue to catch others around the softball fields. This performance was even stronger than her sharpness at Conference. The difference between the courses is between 20-30 seconds, and Kelsey's impressive 9th place with a time of 19:20 illustrates how hard she worked. This one-two punch of Audrey and Kelsey had me feeling really good about our chances as a team. They beat many teams' #1 and #2, putting us in a great position scoring-wise. The final blow was Maya's great performance. Not shockingly, she looked fantastic going up each hill, and she was gritty in the second half of the race. By placing 30th, she beat McHenry's #3 by 5 spots, giving us a really nice cushion point-wise going into the next flight. I know that she was not quite satisfied with her race, but it was instrumental in helping us advance (so give yourself more credit, Maya!).
After that first flight, I knew that Marisa and Riley could shut the door on the competition with their races. When these two took off, I watched them dart up the hill seemingly effortlessly. By the time they emerged from the woods, I felt euphoric! Marisa looked powerful, and Riley was within meters of her. Each successive hill, they looked so strong, and they pressed around the flag, hunting down people ahead of them. In the final 400, Marisa was well ahead of her McHenry's #4, so I knew we were good. Riley, who seems to be made for Grant's course, looked incredible as she hunted down one more runner, and ensured that McHenry's #4 would stay behind her. That signature kick seemed to signal that we were in, but I didn't want to get ahead of myself. A quick note about Riley owning this course: As I mentioned earlier, this course is obviously not as easy as Warren's flat loops. Most people ran between 20-30 seconds slower at Grant, but not Riley. This kid DROPPED 28 seconds from her previous best to earn a NEW LPR. Amazing work, Riley! Now, that being said, I was feeling a bit superstitious about proclaiming our Sectional berth, as there are no rules as to which flight coaches had to place their runners in. Although it would be a weird choice to stack faster runners in the 6-7 race, I didn't want to rule it out as a possibility that a 6 or 7 could have a breakout day. That being said, the performances of these two bees left me feeling really good about our team chances.
Our final two racers, Katelin and Lesly, felt the energy of their teammates' performances, and had a great start to their respective races. These two looked amazing going up the hill, and they out-performed several other team's scoring runners. Katelin was a great "pusher" in that she pushed up the scores of Highland Park, Stevenson, Mundelein, Round Lake, and Grant. That means that as our sixth runner, she beat at least their 5th runners, and in some cases (I'm looking at you, Stevenson) their third, fourth, and fifth. So while Katelin's place did not affect OUR score, her fantastic race certainly affected the scores of other teams. ;) My small worry about other teams sneaking in ahead of our bees were allayed watching her race; despite being "alone" for much of the second half, her focus helped our team. Lesly managed the same, beating some schools' scoring 5th runners, and definitely out performing many others' 6th and 7th. What stood out most about Lesly's race was her fantastic kick, though. As she emerged from the woods for the last time, she started shifting gears with each flag. I knew that she could get at least one more person, and that she did. In a thrilling last stretch, Lesly put away a girl from Grant and sealed our fate for one more week!
When Coach Washington came running over to me with his phone out and a smile on his face, I knew that we had advanced. To be honest, I knew before...I just wanted to see by how much. We placed fifth, only 20 points behind a very strong Libertyville team. In a year of struggles, the fact that we made it to the Sectional for a second year in a row was outstanding. The added layer of the IHSA making it harder (they added teams to the regional and reduced the number of advancing teams from 6 to 5) speaks volumes about this team's accomplishment. What a great feeling to know that we had another week of XC! Congrats to these tough women who rose to the occasion for each other on this blustery day. Just for some context, keep in mind this:
It's Audrey's second time qualifying on a team.
It's Kelsey's FOURTH (twice as an individual, and twice on a team--only ONE other woman in ZB history has managed this feat--Ana Beck)
It's Maya's third (once as an individual--then robbed her sophomore year--and twice on a team).
It's Katelin's second time qualifying on a team.
And it's Marisa, Riley, and Lesly's first time qualifying...but with all of that experience around them, it's no surprise that they looked so at ease pre-race.
Proud of you all! :)
Before I conclude--big shout out to the Stevenson Parents who showed up to support our bees. It was an early morning, and a far drive, but they showed their love for their team today. Man was that a good feeling to see those smiling faces! Thank you for beeing the difference!