Heritage Hills, Forest Park send runners to state

Photos by Alex McIntyre/Special to The Herald, Herald-Times
Heritage Hills cross country runner Noah Hufnagel eyes the clock in the final meters of the race during the Brown County semi-state cross country meet at Eagle Park in Nashville, Ind. Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Hufnagel finished eighth with a time of 15:36.5.



NASHVILLE — As Heritage Hills senior Noah Hufnagel spoke following Saturday’s cross country semistate meet at Brown County’s Eagle Park, one of his Patriot teammates walked up and handed Hufnagel a plastic torch filled with fire-colored tissue paper.

“This is my torch,” Hufnagel said matter-of-factly. “I found it in the woods last year. I saw it, and I thought it was meant to be.”

Maybe so, since Hufnagel will be one of three local torch-bearers at this weekend’s state meet after placing eighth Saturday at semistate. He’ll be joined by junior teammate Mitchell Hopf, who placed 13th among the males, as well as Forest Park junior Claire Mehling, who crossed sixth in the girls race. All three moved on as top-10 individual finishers on non-advancing teams.

A mild, cloudy day coupled with a nearly-flat course made for blistering times among both genders, something all three local athletes took advantage of.

For the boys, 20 of 179 runners posted a time under 16 minutes, compared to just five last year. Hufnagel crossed the line in 15:37, while Hopf completed his run in 15:49.

For the girls, the top 21 were under 19 minutes — including Mehling at 18:34 — and the leading two were below 18. Last year, the totals in those categories were 11 and zero, respectively.

“Beautiful conditions,” Patriot coach Kurt Denning said. “We talked about it all week: You’ve got to get out (at the start). There’s no downhill or uphill or anything like that where you can say, ‘I’m going to wait until the second lap to try to move on somebody.’ Catching up, there is no catching up on this course.”

Hufnagel and Hopf overcame that theory, even though Hopf said the duo did go out “a little quick.” The two picked off runners throughout the event, with Denning estimating Hufnagel was as far back as 25th at one point.

The upperclassman bested his mark of 16:08 last year, which placed him 13th but left him two spots shy of qualifying for the state finals at Terre Haute’s LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.

“That carried me forward a lot throughout the summer,” Hufnagel said of being spurned last season after qualifying for state as a freshman in 2014. “It made me work twice as hard as I did last year. I think not making it last year helped me become a better runner this year.”

Hopf said winding up outside the individual top 10 created a bit of nerves immediately after the race was completed, with his only road to state going solo after the Patriots placed 14th as a team.

“Of course, after what happened last year (with Hufnagel), I had a little bit of concern about it,” Hopf said. “But luckily, teams like Christian (Academy) were a lot stronger … this year, and of course the Bloomington schools were able to advance as well.”

Hufnagel said he felt strong throughout the 5-kilometer jaunt, recording a personal best while experiencing few pains and exhibiting what he called “perfect” breathing technique.

Hopf, who finished in 15:49, didn’t have quite the same experience. Not long after the 2-mile mark, he began to suffer dizziness and chills, which he later attributed to low blood sugar.

Forest Park cross country runner Claire Mehling (1900) runs down a straightaway during the Brown County semi-state cross country meet at Eagle Park in Nashville, Ind. Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Mehling finished sixth with a time of 18:34.2.

“I just knew I had three, four minutes to make it through,” he said. “I just needed to push through and hold my spot for under the next mile, and I should be safe.”

Forest Park’s Mehling was more than safe while cruising to a far-improved time from last season’s semistate, dropping nearly four minutes off her 22:28 mark from 2016.

“I was aiming for under 19,” Mehling said. “I started out really fast, like I always do, and then I felt OK after the first mile and not dead.”

Ranger coach Philip Wolf said he felt Mehling running under 19 minutes was “very doable,” but he admitted he still didn’t expect his lead runner to go quite as low as she did.

“I just told her, ‘You’ve just got to go out and let it rip, because there’s no tomorrow if you don’t get after it,’” Wolf said. “She displayed that from the start.”

Mehling and sophomore teammate Josie Berg both busted out from the start line, getting to the front of the pack as the opening straightaway narrowed significantly heading into the first turn.

“I knew that people were going to get out fast,” Mehling said. “But I was still in first and leading for the first quarter of a mile, so I was like, ‘Where is everybody else?’”

Berg eventually fell off the pace a bit, with her 44th-place time of 19:39 the 17th-best mark among non-advancing teams’ athletes.

But Mehling was able to latch on to Bloomington South’s Toudora Galuska (fourth) and Bloomington North’s Mya Hagerty (fifth) and ride that pace to the chute — despite having some doubts about halfway through the run.

“I guess like a mile and a half (in), I was just like, ‘Do I want to finish this out?’” she said. “I was like, “Yeah, I better.’ And then I felt good.”

Mehling didn’t have much time to soak in her first-ever state berth, as she and Berg had a band competition roughly two hours after the race’s conclusion. Mehling expressed happiness at the fact “all the work has paid off” as a runner this year, but then turned her attention to her next venture.

“I was just focused on this. I was dead-set on this now,” Mehling said. “And now I’m dead-set on going to band.”

No local teams qualified for this Saturday’s state meet, as the Forest Park girls (ninth) came closest. Jasper’s girls (12th) were paced by Alyssa Skorge in 20:23, while 19th-place Heritage Hills received a 19:17 finish from Caitlin Lueken. It was a difficult outcome for the junior Lueken, who was just two spots short of a state berth after finishing three positions out of qualification last year.

In addition to the Patriots’ efforts on the boys side, Jasper took 19th as a team behind Jackson Miller’s 16:36 clocking. Individual contingents from Southridge, Forest Park and Northeast Dubois were paced by Dylan Bland (16:46), Dustin Luebbehusen (16:46) and Nathan Schnell (16:56), respectively.

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