At front of pack or back, belief builds

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Tara Cassidy, left, and Hannah Welsh ran closely with Heritage Hills junior Sienna Crews in in the opening mile of Thursday’s Forest Park Invitational at Cedar Crest Intermediate School. Welsh pulled away to win by 28 seconds and Cassidy finished second to spur the Wildcat girls to the team title ahead of runner-up Forest Park. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

BRETZVILLE — This surely wasn’t Tara Cassidy’s first major race at a cross country invitational. Was it?

The Jasper freshman arrived at the finish line in Thursday’s Forest Park Invitational and placed her hands over her face. Not in exhaustion, as is typically the routine at the finish line, but in elation.
She then hoisted her hands over her head, a smile washing over her face, and hopped a short distance over to her father, Tim, and engulfed him in a massive hug. Cassidy almost looked like she was ready to romp another 3 miles.

Just to clear things up, yes, it was Cassidy’s first invitational race at the high school level. And like so many other newcomer runners, Thursday’s meet proved highly illuminating. The measure of victory came in multiple iterations. Some of the younger guys and gals finished a 5K race for the first time, so that in itself qualified as a landmark. And some of the green runners, meanwhile, proved themselves at the head of the pack.

Both subsets of athletes came away with reasons to be jazzed. And that included Cassidy, who explained the end-of-race reaction that looked like she’d just been picked as a game-show contestant.

“I beat someone that I was really happy to beat. I did really good, I guess,” said Cassidy, who finished second overall. “I was really nervous, and now I’m real excited that I have more self-confidence in myself. It was really exciting.”

What Cassidy referenced was the first occasion Jasper runners have finished ahead of Sienna Crews, the two-time defending sectional champ from Heritage Hills who’s still working back into shape after injuries from the track season. Crews (21:43) was third while Cassidy (21:06) inched ahead in the final mile. Jasper sophomore Hannah Welsh — who ran practically side by side with Crews for the first 2 miles — did the same in etching a winning time of 20:38.

Wildcat freshmen Noelle Weyer (seventh) and Grace Mehringer (10th) also landed in the top 10, and Sydney Berger added a fifth-place effort as Jasper (20 points) topped runner-up Forest Park (45) in the field with four full teams. Heritage Hills, with just three runners, didn’t manage a team score.

Jasper coach Kevin Schipp called Cassidy’s finish “a breakout race.” To him, the list of highlights stretched further, even on an evening when running a personal-best was out of the question.

“For the first meet on a warmer night on a tough course, I couldn’t really ask for more,” Schipp said. “How good they did tonight really gave some of them a spark, a little hop in their step after the race, and (has them) excited to keep training harder for later when it’s more important.”
Nolan Kiefer, for one, gained a dose of that belief.

Frazzled by nerves before the race, the Jasper sophomore half-jokingly admitted that “I didn’t really think I wanted to run today” when he eyed the start line. That hesitation melted 19 minutes and 30 second later. Kiefer finished 13th, the first time he’s recorded a team-leading finish, as he helped Jasper (74) seize third place behind Castle (41) and Barr-Reeve (69).

Kiefer and teammates Chris Brake (15th), Kelby Uebelhor (16th) and Donald Bough (17th) all finished within five seconds of each other. Many Cats are gaining speed with experience; Bough is a former discus thrower transitioning to distance running. And after Thursday’s race, the father of a Wildcat runner encouraged Uebelhor to start running with spikes instead of normal running shoes.

Whatever their style, the Cats are accomplishing it together. They traveled in a cluster Thursday the same way they upped their mileage training together this summer.

“It’s really been a big jump for a lot of people, they’ve really put in the time and effort,” said Kiefer, who was running about 20 miles a week at the outset of summer and in the 60s by the end. “We’ve really kicked it up since last year. Last year, we were just getting by with what we had. This year, we really busted it in miles, and it’s really starting to pay off.”

At Forest Park, the lead girl hasn’t catalogued many miles yet. Keep an eye on Amy Troesch, because no one sees her coming.

Ranger coach Philip Wolf never did, as “she came to the program out of the blue,” Wolf said. He spotted Troesch at this summer’s Heimatfest 5K, intrigued by the 4-foot-11 freshman who’d never run cross country but glides at a remarkably consistent pace, slowly picking off runners who start too fast — just as she did Thursday in rising through the field to finish fourth in 22:26.

“I had ran (only occasionally), but I always liked running. I always said that I didn’t like to race,” Troesch said. “But I did the Heimatfest 5K and I decided that maybe it was kind of fun, so I was going to talk to Philip and see if I could do both.”

Troesch also plays clarinet in the band, and she dashes from cross country to band practice until 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Saturday brings another six-hour band practice. There’s time to rest Sunday, right?

“Oh, not really, because I work at Holiday World,” Troesch said.

Oh, and ditching schoolwork isn’t going to happen either for a girl who’s high on ambition.

“I’ve always gotten A’s in school, so I’m working to get a 4.0 (GPA),” Troesch added.

Nicole Rahman (ninth), Sarah Pund (11th) and Emma Fraze (14th) filed in behind Troesch, while Sean Verkamp (fifth) and Trey Dooley (seventh) topped a four-man Ranger boys team that was a runner shy of recording a team score. Pund’s tenacity stuck out to Wolf, as did the strides of guys like Bryce Becher, who was the last Ranger finisher but buzzed two minutes off the time trial he ran a week earlier on the same course.

“They’re showing progress, and that’s what I want,” Wolf said.

Ditto for the fifth-place Heritage Hills boys, who competed without a full complement of athletes as some still work up to racing shape and other late-comers need to fulfill their requisite number of practices.

Devon Merder (19:04) was ninth, and the Pats’ next three finishers — Dalton Selvidge (19:40), Sakuma Lahee and Logan Troesch — were all running their first 5K at the prep level. Coach Kurt Denning’s hope was that all the Pats, both old and young, learned by surveying their surroundings.

“There’s some nice talent out here. Hopefully that’s going to be a push for my kids to say, ”˜Hey, I need to get it in gear if this is what I want to do,’” Denning said. “I saw a few bright spots out here. I see a lot of areas where we can improve with conditioning.”

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