Rangers, Raiders run toward history

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Forest Park’s Claire Mehling, left, and Josie Berg embraced while hoisting a girls cross country sectional championship trophy after Saturday’s race at Vincennes University’s Jasper Campus. Mehling was the individual champion and Berg placed fourth for the Rangers. For more photos from the meet, click here.


JASPER — History made by margins big and small is still history. Cross country runners from Forest Park and Southridge learned that Saturday at the Jasper Sectional on the Vincennes University-Jasper campus, and they couldn’t have been happier.

The Ranger girls secured their first sectional crown in 20 years by dominating the field, while the Raider boys squeaked into their first team regional berth in 14 years.

It was an emotional day for the Ranger girls, who came into the race having finished runner-up to Jasper each of the last two seasons. But they left no doubt the third time was the charm, as Forest Park placed four runners inside the top six to outlast the Wildcats 27-67.

Junior Claire Mehling cruised to the individual girls win in 20:26, followed by teammates Josie Berg, Magda Alvis and Mayson VanMeter in fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively. The Rangers and their coaches exchanged hugs while shedding tears of joy just outside the finish chute when they realized their efforts were enough to end a title drought.

“To be honest, I was pretty tired by the end of it,” said Mehling, he voice still shaky after the impromptu celebration. “I know how hard ... we all worked for this. When I crossed the finish line, everything was worth it.”

Mehling said Ranger coach Phillip Wolf on Friday had the girls walk to a spot in the school’s Buechler Arena, where a picture hangs of the previous Forest Park sectional-champion team. He then showed them a taped-off spot nearby, room for a new image, and accompanied it with a powerful message: “If you want this, then it’s yours.”

“We were all in tears by that point,” Mehling said. “And we’re all in tears again.”

Wolf said the display did its job the following day.

“I think it really motivated them because it shows we were that close,” he said. “People may not agree with what I’m doing in August, but we’re concerned with October. And that’s what we showed today. We came and ran for October.”

Ranger assistant coach Kurt Traylor said he was not only impressed by Mehling’s race, but also by the showings of freshman Alvis and sophomore VanMeter.

“Those are big, big, big (results),” he said. “We’ve been working on closing the gaps, each place, been constantly telling them we need to close the gap. And they’re doing it now.”

Forest Park engaged in a course walkthrough last Tuesday, with the main goals of limiting nerves come race day and picturing how the competition could break down later in the week.

“(Our aim was) knowing what’s coming and how you’re going to attack, not just showing up and you’re out of wind because you weren’t expecting it,” Wolf said. “But if you visualize it beforehand, it make a world of difference.”

The Rangers had a bonfire planned later in the day, a moment to soak in their new place in school history. Mehling had to attend a band practice first, but her running teammates were on her mind ahead of that venture.

“I can’t describe how proud I am of every one of them,” she said. “They all worked their butts off. Everybody earned it.”

In addition to Forest Park and Jasper, the girls teams from Heritage Hills (fourth) and Southridge (fifth) advanced to next week’s Crawford County Regional, paced by Caitlin Lueken (second) and Brooklyn Tretter (16th), respectively. Northeast Dubois’ Shelby Livingston also qualified as an individual in seventh place.

The boys race, meanwhile, saw No. 14 Tell City run its sectional title streak to four with a 33-94 advantage over the host Wildcats. Jasper was closely followed by Heritage Hills (95), while Northeast Dubois (111) also advanced as a squad in fourth.

Southridge’s Owen Roy, left, and Jaffet Cruz neared the finish line during Saturday’s cross country sectional at Vincennes University’s Jasper Campus. Roy placed 33rd and Cruz secured 34th as the Raiders qualified for the regional round for the first time in 14 years, placing fifth as a team. For more photos from the meet, click here.

Then there was Southridge, tallying 126 points to edge out Forest Park’s total of 127. Freshman Dylan Bland returned from shin trouble to place 15th, while fellow first-year high-schooler Cameron Giles followed him in 17th.

“I’m very proud,” Raider coach Leslie Denu said. “It was an awesome day, thanks to these two freshmen that led the way. They competed the entire time. They wanted it. You could tell.”

Bland and Giles were more tired that anything after their jaunt around the wooded, hilly terrain. But they made sure to take note of what they and their teammates had achieved.

“It’s a big moment,” Giles said. “It’s my first year of high school, and we made it out as a team, so that’s good.”

Both boys described their one-point edge over the Rangers as “surprising.” Forest Park qualified Dustin Luebbehusen (13th), Ben Becher (18th) and Garrett Betz (21st) individually for the regional.

“We just needed to run fast,” Giles said. “We knew it was going to be a fight.”

There was another battle going on during the boys race as well, with Patriot teammates Noah Hufnagel and Mitchell Hopf sprinting down the final straightaway to see who would capture first-place honors. In the end, Hufnagel became a repeat champion, missing his winning time from 2016 by just one second at 16:45.
But there were certainly no hard feelings between the two, who strategically spent time trading the lead throughout the race.

“It was great,” said junior Hopf of fighting to the end with senior Hufnagel. “I didn’t have a lot left the last 150 (meters), but it was a lot of fun.”

Hufnagel said support across the course enhanced what was already a successful day.

“Especially when you’ve got your coaches, your teachers, your principal down there,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like, woah, got to get going now.”

The pair, along with all other qualified teams and individuals, will get going to the Crawford County course this upcoming Saturday. Hufnagel and Hopf said they’re prepared for a quick race, as Hufnagel posted a winning time of 16:07 in Marengo last season.

“The competition only adds more and more as we keep moving on,” Hopf said. “I’m excited for it, and hopefully we have the ability to come out and have another strong performance there.”

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