Pats' Hufnagel goes out on high note at state finals

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Heritage Hills' Noah Hufnagel, seen in the Jasper Invitational earlier this season, placed 24th Saturday in the state cross country meet at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute.


TERRE HAUTE — It was a tale of two races for three local runners at Saturday’s state cross country meet.
For Heritage Hills senior Noah Hufnagel, another shot at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course left him satisfied as he concluded his cross country career.

For Patriot junior Mitchell Hopf and Forest Park junior Claire Mehling, it was a missed opportunity they hope to reverse next year.

Hufnagel navigated the windy, hilly course and overcame blustery weather to place 24th among the boys with a time of 16:02. He even saved his best for last, as Hufnagel passed at least seven athletes on the final straightaway before entering the finishing chute.

“I felt pretty good there at the end, pretty strong,” Hufnagel said. “It was a good race overall, and I know I gave it my all.”

Hopf completed the event in 16:20, good for 60th place. Still chilled long after the race, Hopf said he “screwed up a little bit tactically” during his first try at the state championships.

“(Hufnagel and I) were together up until about halfway, and I fell off,” Hopf said. “Didn’t feel great, didn’t have the race I wanted. It was ugly, man. It’s disappointing.”

Mehling posted a time of 19:24 to place 87th in the girls race and said her first kilometer — which she completed 15 seconds quicker than expected — ultimately damaged her chances of running at the level she hoped to.

“I got a little overexcited and went out way too fast,” she said after her first state race. “My finish and the last half of the race was not strong at all.”

Heritage Hills coach Kurt Denning and Forest Park head Philip Wolf were upbeat about what they saw from their respective athletes, and they also tried to keep the situation in perspective for their junior stars.

“Like I told them when we got here, this is a moment every Indiana high school cross country runner dreams of,” Denning said. “Whatever happens out here, you should be exceptionally happy with yourself.”

“I think she ran the exact way she’s ran all year: She ran hard,” Wolf added about Mehling. “That’s all I want for her to do, and today was a huge learning experience.”

Denning said he felt both his boys ran a fantastic race, but contended Hufnagel qualifying for state as a freshman made a difference in how the two Patriots finished.

“(Hufnagel) had a little bit of an idea what was going to happen with the hype and the amount of people and all that,” Denning said. “And you can try to explain that to someone who’s not been here … but then it happens, and it is a different story.”

Hopf said he felt he successfully zoned out the hordes of constantly-screaming fans despite being uncertain just how loud it would be around the expansive course.

“That was one of the things coming into the race that was on my mind: I didn’t know what to expect,” Hopf said. “It was definitely a good experience.”

Mehling admitted that being involved in Indiana’s most important prep cross country race left her a bit flustered when all was said and done.

“This is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, so it was a little overwhelming,” she said. “I can’t wait to get back here next year and show people what I can do.”

Hufnagel, meanwhile, relished the chance to improve upon a 49th-place time of 16:13 in 2014.

“After fighting from my freshman year to get back here my senior year, it’s a great way to top off my senior year,” he said. “The experience again has just been incredible. I’ve loved it.”

All competitors had their time at state accompanied by surprisingly cold conditions. After running through heat for most of the season, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees and the wind whipped up prior to the starter’s gun firing.

The three local athletes said they didn’t notice the chill as much once they were actually running, with Hufnagel noting the weather was comparable to what he and others experience while training for track season.

Only Hopf donned extra equipment — a pair of light gloves — to deal with the cold. But that didn’t mean all three locals were wearing their typical uniforms otherwise.

While Hufnagel and Hopf sported their typical navy-blue Heritage Hills shirts and shorts, Mehling received a fluorescent yellow top that allowed her to stick out from all other girls in the field.

Wolf said it was his idea to provide Mehling with a unique uniform, something he did with one of his previous Ranger teams in the form of pink getups at the semistate contest.

“When we were at semistate (this year), (assistant coach) Kurt (Traylor) and I were talking about, it would be pretty cool to reward Claire with her own uniform this year for state,” Wolf said. “And it’s going to mean a lot to her.”

Hopf, too, had a special addition to his day at state. After Hopf dealt with what he believed was low blood sugar at semistate, Denning took the crew to Terre Haute establishment Crackleberries for some pancakes prior to the state meet.

“I just wanted to make sure that he did eat,” Denning said. “I don’t think that was an issue today. Hopefully he learned something from that as well.”

Both juniors came away with knowledge they could compete at the state’s highest level and said they recognized the experience’s value.

“It just gives me more focus going into the future,” Hopf said. “I know the mistakes I made, so I can work so I can prevent that next time.”

Meanwhile, Hufnagel was feeling plenty of positive vibes as he looked toward his final track season.

“I couldn’t ask for a better ending,” he said. “I’ve just got to look back and say I gave it my all and that I didn’t have anything left out there.”

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