By Bill Cross
For The Herald Bulletin
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — On a windy and cool Saturday, more than 200 runners lined up for a chance to win a girls state high school state cross country championship at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.
Twenty-four teams vied for the right to hoist the trophy and to be remembered as champions, while 40 individual runners who qualified were chasing the overall title.
For the third time in school history and the first in 25 years, the Pendleton Heights Lady Arabians were one of those 24 teams and finished 14th.
After winning the sectional and regional rounds, Pendleton finished third at a difficult New Haven semi-state to advance to the first state final for the team since 1988. Coming into the finals, Pendleton was ranked 10th in the state. Sophomore Alex Buck led the way with a 19th place finish.
Carmel and Columbus North were expected to be the teams to beat and it held true on Saturday. Carmel, led by individual race winner Kelcy Welch, defeated Hamilton Southeastern 76-122 to win the team title. Columbus North was third, West Lafayette was fourth and Avon was fifth.
As the runners broke from the starting line, Sierra Moore of Elkhart eased out to an early lead but was quickly chased down by Welch and Mackenzie Caldwell of Columbus North. Buck was battling and was in the top ten at the three-quarter mark but faded a little down the stretch, finishing in the 19th spot with a time of 18:35.1.
The experience of making the state finals made for a lasting memory for the team, but especially the two seniors. Chelsea Blackwell finished 132nd in a time of 21.02 and fought back tears as she explained how much it meant to make it to the state final as a senior after a rough freshman year.
Fellow senior Maddi Hinton finished 136th, four seconds behind Blackwell. “It was an amazing experience,” Hinton said. “Our goal was to get here and try our hardest, which I think we did.” Hinton and Blackwell both acknowledged the level of work it took to make it to state finals.
“The hard work is really what has changed over the years” Hinton said. “Every year we work harder and harder for our goals.” For the five remaining runners, the trip to the finals is a stepping stone and a chance to build a solid foundation for the program. Buck and Monica Dudley (115th) are sophomores, while Alli McCarty (42nd), Emma Hall (81st) and Faith Baer (151st) are freshmen.
“Fourteenth is great, we maintained our place in the semi-state” Arabians coach Melissa Hagerman said, referring to finishing behind Fort Wayne Carroll and Penn for the second straight week. “We proved we are the real deal and I know the girls are anxious to come back next year. I feel like we crossed a big hurdle, but I expect us to be back and I expect it to be better.”
For Buck, it was an exciting experience, but also a chance to take some mental notes for next year. “It was definitely a neat experience” Buck said. “I loved being able to run with so many other talented girls and a blast to run here as a team. All of us realize what our strengths and weaknesses are with the course here, so I think next year we are going to come back and be even tougher.”
Overall, Hagerman was happy with the season. “It’s a nice graduation gift for two really special seniors,” Hagerman said in reference to Blackwell and Hinton. “It’s kind of what I expected, I knew they were capable of it. This team met what I expected.”
The races took their toll on the runners as several collapsed after crossing the finish line and needed extra medical attention. Baer sat in an ambulance for a while following the awards ceremony, trying to get hydrated after a tough run.
Carmel swept the day as the boys won the team event. Jackson Bertoli of Terre Haute South was the individual winner.