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Oak Hill's Gamble races to XC state podium

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MEDALIST: Oak Hill's Mollie Gamble strides towards the finish line in her 18th-place finish at the cross country state championship in Terre Haute on Saturday.
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GOLDEN EAGLE: Oak Hill's Mollie Gamble finished 18th in Saturday's girls cross country state championship to become the first girl in Grant County history to medal in back-to-back seasons in the 5K-era (since 2007).

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

Mollie Gamble further cemented her legacy as one of Grant County’s all-time best high school cross country runners in Saturday’s state championship meet.

Using her typical race strategy, the Taylor University-bound Gamble raced her way to the podium for the second-straight year with an 18th-place finish on the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute.

While Gamble’s talent can’t be understated, consistency in her performances over the last four cross country seasons has helped her develop into one of the top runners in Indiana.

“It’s hard for me to put into words how consistent she has been throughout her four years, not only with her health, but just her racing,” said Oak Hill coach Paige Brunner. “She’s had days we weren’t necessarily happy with or she’s had days where we were like, well, we would have liked to have been a few spots up.

“She’s probably the one athlete I’ve had in cross country or track that I can think of where I just don’t remember a day where she was off and had a bad day that was really far off what you wanted,” Brunner added.

And Saturday was another one of those days for Gamble.

The pace of a state championship race typically starts off fast. The first 400 meters of the Gibson Course is a long straightaway where the front runners race out ahead of the more than 200 competitors to make the battle for the top positions a much smaller one.

“That front stretch she always takes a step back and lets people overrun that stretch,” Brunner said, which is how Gamble has always approached bigger races. “I said get behind some people and let them block and then when you go down there and make that first turn, start to make your move.”

A fair amount of wind swept across the hilly terrain in southwestern Indiana on Saturday and Gamble executed her early-race strategy exactly how she wanted.

“It was like normal. It went out fast, but I moved my way up after like the one (Kilometer),” Gamble said. "I just kept moving up throughout the whole race. The wind, it didn’t really factor much because I had people around me, so that was really nice.”

Junior Annalyssa Crain of Edgewood and senior Eric Strzelecki from Fort Wayne Dwenger were the two pacesetters from the start and ultimately settled the individual state title between themselves. Strzelecki, last year’s state runner up, finished in 17:22 to win by more than 20 seconds over Crain.

Gamble settled in around 40th through that first kilometer of five, Brunner estimated, and from there she started moving forward.

Brunner said next time he saw Gamble she had worked her way to around 30th, the cracked the top-25 or 20 past the halfway mark.

“I just kept looking ahead the entire time to see who was ahead of me and try to get them,” Gamble said. “I had some surges there in the middle and tried to just catch the people in front of me.”

The closing stretch of the race is another nearly 400 meter straightaway and Brunner said Gamble was 16th when she made the final turn for the finish line.

“I knew she was safe for the top 25, first-team all state,” Brunner said, about watching Gamble enter the homestretch, “But she had a pack of girls with her. I thought well if you’re able to drop the hammer here you can be top 10 but you’re also gonna have to fight for your life if you’re gonna be on the podium.

“(Gamble) knows that drop-the-hammer foot speed is not what makes her special, but I’ll give her credit. To be a senior and have the pressure she has on her, there’s a lot of girls that ran today that medaled last year the did not fare well,” he continued. “We counted and she was one of five girls to medal for the second-straight year. That kind of puts in perspective how hard it is and how difficult that race is.”

An even bigger testament of toughness at a state cross country championship race is Gamble reached the finish line in 18:39, 14 seconds faster than last fall, yet only finished one spot higher in the standings with her 18th-place run.

“I had my mind set on something a little bit higher, place-wise, but I’m definitely happy with it,” Gamble said.

Still, a second-consecutive state medal put Gamble in very select company when it comes to Grant County high school cross country.

Only one other person in the 5K era, Mississinewa’s Brennan Butche, has medaled more than once, and Butche did three-consecutive years before graduating in 2018 and moving on to compete for IUPUI. The boys’ 5K-era started in 1980 and in 2007 for the girls.

While the 2019 state championship will be the final time Gamble competes wearing Oak Hill’s blue and gold in cross country, her finish earned her one more chance to compete as high school runner as an Indiana All Star.

Brunner is the coach of team Indiana and relishes the chance to work with Gamble for the next two weeks.

‘For me to be in a position to be coaching that team and be able to have her be one of the athletes to make it is pretty cool,” he said. “I told her she’s stuck with me for a couple more weeks and another month of training.

“The all star meet there won’t be any pressure there and it will be a fun meet for her to go compete with 11 other girls from Indiana,” Brunner added. “She’s earned that opportunity, and its a good way to close out your career as an Indiana athlete.”

Gamble will compete in the Mideast Meet of Champions on Nov. 16 in Kettering, Ohio. Team Indiana will race against the top seniors from Ohio, Illinois in Michigan.

Gamble is just the third girls to earn an Indiana All Star selection, following former teammate Margo Hornocker and also Oak Hill standout Marcy Devoe.