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Area runners ready for regional competition

REGIONAL READY: The Oak Hill and Mississienwa girls cross country teams are pictured taking off from the starting line of the Central Indiana Conference race at Indiana Wesleyan on Sept. 28. Runners are (from left to right) Oak Hill’s Kate Hornocker (754), Selah Jackson (755), Kinzie Robey (759), Mollie Gamble and Mississinewa’s Carli Fones and Raegan Tippey (727). Both teams will compete in the Marion Regional on Saturday at IWU.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

When the starting gun fires for Saturday’s Marion boys and girls cross country regionals at Indiana Wesleyan, it will likely start some of the fiercest competition teams have faced all season.

A mere 10-teams will compete in each race, five will survive and advance to the New Haven Semistate on Oct. 20 and there isn’t much separation, especially between the teams that will likely compete for the second through fifth spots.

The girls will race first at 10:30 a.m., and the battle for the top spot, both team and individual, will be one to keep an eye on. Based on time from sectionals, Oak Hill is the favorite by running a 1:47:07 to win the Marion Sectional at IWU last Saturday. But Norwell, winner of the other sectional that feeds to the Marion Regional at Bellmont, will likely have a say in the outcome.

The Knights time of 1:48.05 puts them in close company with the Golden Eagles. Fort Wayne Luers (1:49.16), runner-up to Norwell at Bellmont, is also in the neighborhood of competing for a regional crown. 

“I still think Norwell is the favorite. I think they’ve been the favorite all season long,” said Oak Hill coach Paige Brunner. “Once Jenessa (Hasty) got hurt for us, in the back of my mind I wasn’t sure if competing for a regional title was going to be an option any more.

“I think that kind of speaks volumes as to what our girls have been able to do and the level they’ve been able to compete at,” he added. “They’ve all kind of stepped their game up a little bit, and I think we’ve got a very good chance to go in their Saturday and compete for a team title.”

The race for the team title could potentially be decided by who wins the individual race and juniors Mollie Gamble from Oak Hill and Sydney Lambert from Norwell will certainly play key roles in both. Lambert returns to IWU with the experience of being a regional champion, winning in 2016 as a freshman, but she was also beaten by both Margo Hornocker and Gamble in the 2017 regional.

Gamble will look to add a regional championship to her first Grant Four, Central Indiana Conference and second sectional championship she’s already won this season. 

“Sydney is in that realm of being one of the top 25 girls in the state,” Brunner said of Lambert. “We’re excited for Mollie because it’s arguably one of the first times this year, especially on that course, where Mollie is going to have the opportunity to run with somebody and compete with somebody.

“With the weather change, we’re not only hoping Mollie runs fast and puts down a good time, this is also one of the few meets as well where Mollie’s place is going to help us,” he added. “... That matchup with her and Sydney up front is going to be a two-point swing for one of us. Definitely a fun battle to watch.”

Obviously more will go in to determining the team race than just Gamble and Lambert, and Brunner believes sophomore Kinzie Robey and Selah Jackson can compete for top-5 spots or higher. But he also believes it could come down to the fourth and fifth scoring runners, where freshman Grace Geller, sophomore Kate Hornocker and junior Lauren Marsh, have taken turns out finishing Oak Hill’s top five through the season.  

“We told our girls it’s pretty simple math, if you can beat the girl from Norwell that runs the same position you do, they can’t beat us,” Brunner said. “I know they’re probably stronger one through three right now, especially on a good day. We feel pretty confident we’re better than them on the back end, in terms of our depth.”

Mississinewa and Eastbrook are also well represented in the field. The Indians finished fourth in the Marion Sectional to advance as a team while the Panthers claimed five of the 10 individual spots but finished sixth.

Ole Miss will be lead by a trio of potential semistate qualifiers, juniors Aurora Fisher, Carli Fones and Raegan Tippey. Fisher has advanced in each of her first two years of high school cross country while Fones will try to advance for the second time, she went as a freshman then sat out XC season last year. Tippey is in her first year as a varsity runner for Ole Miss.

Eastbrook will be represented by a trio of underclassmen in sophomores Laynie Craw and Rachel Manning along with freshman Rebekah Hammond. Seniors Jade Stuber and Eleana Manning will also compete for the Panthers. 

“Just having the five out is a step in the right direction, I don’t know if any truly have a chance to advance,” said Eastbrook coach Ethan Evans. “For the seniors, their goal is to have a culmination effort that embodies everything they’ve gone through the last four years - different coaches and what comes with running four years of cross country.

“For the young girls, if they can have a positive ending to their season, probably not going to be time-wise, but their effort and if they finish well, that’s their goal,” he added. “And if one of them happens to shock us and makes it out, that’s amazing. They’re just focused on their effort and finishing the season strong and letting that carry over to track.”

When the boys race starts around 11 a.m., Mississinewa senior Brennan Butche will most likely kick away from the field quickly and race to his second straight regional title. The battle for the team title also looks to have a pair of prohibitive favorites in Wabash and Bellmont, who’s combined team times from sectional were separated by around 20 seconds.

Oak Hill, Eastbrook and Mississinewa all could figure in to who claims the final three semistate advancing spots for teams. 

“Wabash and Bellmont are your two strongest teams. If Wabash runs the way they’ve been running the past couple of weeks, they’re going to be really hard to beat,” Brunner said. “Bellmont is going to pack it together, and it will depend on what that gap is like with Wabash’s front runners.

Brunner also said New Haven, Huntington North and Heritage have the capability to claim a top-five team finish.

“It’s going to be a situation where there are six or seven teams that have a legitimate shot of getting in that top five,” Brunner said. “I think we could be as high as second or third on a good day or we could be on the outside looking in. Our kids have got to come prepared to race.”

Eastbrook will start the race a bit shorthanded, as Panthers number three Nathan Brainer will be competing for a regional title on the soccer pitch at Oak Hill. But Evans still believes Eastbrook could make their way into the top five.

“We’ve been looking at different scenarios, even without (Brainer), I still think there’s in an outside chance that we can advance,” Evans said. “Ben (Neideck) and Logan (Kennedy) didn’t run well at sectional, and if those two guys race how they should, with it being such a small meet, we’ve got a shot. But being down Nathan is definitely gong to hurt us for sure.”

Mississinewa’s boys advanced to a regional for the first time since 1988 by finishing fifth in sectional. The Indians were just 16 seconds slower than fourth-place Eastbrook but 16 points behind the Panthers.

Marion will also have two boys competing on Saturday with seniors Joel Barnes and Tyler Morgan. Barnes hopes to earn his second straight semistate trip while Morgan will try to make his first trip.

The regional races will be less about running fast times and more about individual battles throughout the five kilometer course.

“Every point is going to matter, especially on the boys side,” Evans said. “We can run an unlimited amount of scenarios, but just knowing how the postseason works, there’s a good chance it’s going to come down to just a few points for that fifth and final spot.”