NXN Midwest: Carmel girls thrilled to share the experience with Carmel boys. Erba's decision.

TERRE HAUTE – Judging by their reactions at the award ceremony, the biggest thrill Sunday for the repeat Nike Cross Nationals Midwest Region champion Carmel Distance Project girls (Carmel HS, IN) came not when they learned they had earned their second straight title here at the Lavern Gibson Championship Course.  It came several minutes earlier during the boys’ awards.


That’s when it was announced that the girls’ male counterparts from their school north of Indianapolis would be joining them.  Carmel’s girls were pretty sure even before the awards that they had earned their third straight berth to NXN Finals, but for the boys, it will be their first trip ever to Portland.  They cheered long and loud.


“They are definitely invested in one another,” said Carmel girls coach Mark Ellington of the two squads.  “The girls are excited to see the boys have the opportunity.”


Of course, that’s not to say that Coach Ellington’s troops weren’t thrilled with their won hard-earned victory and relish an attempt to improve on their 5th-place finish from the 2011 finals.  The Indiana state champions achieved their goal on a mild (60 degrees), but extremely windy day (25-30 mph) by packing their first six runners within a 27-point span and scoring 91 points.  After winning by just four points last year, Carmel had a 16-point margin over North Naperville Girls TC (Naperville North HS, IL), which tallied 107.  The Illinois 3A champs will return to the NXN Finals for the first time since 2005, before the regional qualifying system was in place and obviously before any of the current team was competing.


The Wilmette RC (New Trier HS, IL), which was fourth in Portland last year after taking second to Carmel here, was third here this time, scoring 125 points behind the 5th-place finish overall of senior Courtney Ackerman.  In fourth was the Mason Running Club with 151 points, which as Mason HS took the previous weekend’s D1 title in Ohio.  Both squads will wait until Nov. 25 to see if they earned either of the four at-large berths that will be awarded after all of the regional races are completed.


The race’s individual champion was just as elated about her win as Carmel, but she will not be in Portland December 1.  Warsaw IN senior Ashley Erba made a big move after the two mile mark and pulled away to a 17:38.1 triumph.  But she and her father/coach decided later, as athletes filled out their registration forms at the nearby Wabash Family Center, that they will choose a different path for the rest of the post-season (Mideast Meet of Champions and Foot Locker).


New Illinois state meet record setter and Glenbard West senior Madeline Perez was running with Erba when the winner made her move, but held onto second and closed well for 17:46.6.  Two of the nation’s most impressive freshmen this fall, Taylor Werner of Ste. Genevieve MO and Mary Kate Vaughn of Oakwood OH, took third and fourth with 18:08.6 and 18:08.8.  They were followed by the aforementioned Ackerman in fifth (18:12.4) and Bobbie Burgess of Phoenix Fire (West Lafayette IN senior), who ran 18:14.4 and was 24 seconds ahead of seventh. 


So Perez, Werner, Vaughn, Ackerman, and Burgess are the current five individuals to qualify from the Midwest.  But if either Wilmette or Mason (or both) get in as at-large teams, another individual will get in.  Since the next two finishers were Mason senior Lauren Wood (18:38.5) and New Trier soph Mimi Smith (18:39.6), it’s conceivable (though unlikely) that Breckenridge MI junior Kirsten Olling (9th in 18:40.9) could be the final individual.


Carmel’s turning point


Casual followers of the Carmel program might presume that the Lady Greyhounds steamrolled every foe all year long; after all, they’re rated #1 in the country and haven’t faced any other top 10-ranked schools.


But that’s not the case.  Coach Ellington pointed out that his girls’ first two meets in August were very close, beating rival West Lafayette by just one point in the opener and by just nine points a week later, and that it took those close calls for them to realize what it might take to match or exceed the success of their predecessors.


“Remember, we graduated some leaders,” Coach Ellington said (Class of 2012 standouts Renee Wellman and Sarah Bennett).  “It’s a credit to these girls that they then began to take command ... the last six weeks we’ve been a pretty confident team.”


Carmel didn’t have to have any real high scorers to win decisively.  The tight pack took care of that.  Juniors Kelcy Welch and Gina Genco, and sophomore Haley Harris, finished 22-23-26 (scoring 11-12-14) as they came in virtually together at 19:02.5, 19:03.7 and 19:04.7.  Then senior Ellen Schmidt (scoring 21st, 19:16.3) and junior Samantha Dauby (scoring 33rd, 19:25.5) closed out the top five, followed by Ellen’s sophomore sister Anna (39th, 19:29.0) and Haley’s twin sister Kelsey (73rd, 20:02.2).


It’s definitely a family affair at Carmel.


North Naperville may not have had a sister act, but the team cohesiveness was just as big a factor.  Soph Elly DeTurris paced the effort, finishing 12th overall (scoring 6th in 18:43.8).  She was followed by junior Maria McDaniel (15th, 19:06.0), frosh Judy Pendergast (19th, 19:15.1), frosh Kate Shannon (30th, 19:22.1) and senior Kimber Meyer (37th, 19:28.6) for the 107-point tally.  Soph Jenny Smith (67th, 19:57) and senior Grace Carballo (71st, 19:59) also got under 20:00.


“Our plan was just to be selfless,” said Carballo of the “team strategy.” “We recognize that every girl has a big impact, even those not on the top seven.”


Tough choice


Ashley Erba expressed uncertainty about the rest of her post-season racing plans immediately after she finished her winning performance Sunday. 


By the time it came to filling out the registration forms for NXN Finals later in the afternoon, however, she and her coach/father were decided.  They were concerned about the possibility of racing five weeks in a row, which could have been the drill if Erba ran the Nov. 17 Mideast Meet of Champions, then took a top 10 finish at Foot Locker Midwest Nov. 24, which would qualify her for the Dec. 8 Final.  Add in the Dec. 1 NXN Final, and you have five weeks of racing.  Since Erba apparently really wants to represent Team Indiana at the Mideast meet, and make it to San Diego, she determined the NXN Final had to go.


As for the NXN Midwest race itself, Erba moved up with great care.  The first kilometer went in 3:18 and by the mile (5:27), New Trier IL senior Courtney Ackerman, Lake Park IL senior Kaylee Flanagan and Ste. Genevieve MO frosh Taylor Werner were the top three.


By 2k (6:55), the lead pack was eight, with Erba, Glenbard West junior Madeline Perez, and Prospect IL senior Brooke Wolfe also now in that group, in addition to the previously mentioned three.  Then Ackerman, Perez, Werner, Erba and Wolfe began to move out a little from the others.


By 3k and 2M (10:25/11:12), Ackerman, Erba and Perez had separated and the tempo was really picking up.  Ackerman couldn’t maintain and it was the two state champs going at it.  At about 2-1/4, just before they went into the series of hay bales, Erba turned up the volume a little more and Perez began dropping back.  It was soon clear that the winning move had been made, with 4k passing in 14:00, as long as Erba had enough for the finishing incline into the wind.


She did.  Perez finished well, perhaps closing the gap a little, but Erba won decisively in 17:38.1 to Perez’s 17:46.6. 


If Erba had any questions about strategy, coming off her difficult loss at state to Anna Rohrer, the extremely windy conditions necessitated being conservative.  “I wanted to run smart,” she said.  “My dad, who’s also my coach, and I talked about strategy before the race and he said, ‘You’re 95 pounds, you don’t need to be breaking the wind for everybody.’”


She also talked about how satisfying the victory was after her tough loss at state Oct. 27 to Anna Rohrer (see lead story).


But while Erba was coming off that disappointment from two weeks earlier, Perez was trying to refocus after her mind-blowing performance Nov. 3 that left her as the fastest in the history of the Illinois state meet (since girls went to 3 miles in 2002).


“The past week was amazing,” said Perez.  “I got so much support from my school, my team, coaches, friends, family, everyone.  I really enjoyed it ... I never had a week like this.”  Perez not only has improved tremendously since last year, but also overcame an “upper respiratory” illness that slowed her in mid-season.


“My training started getting really strong right around conference meet,” she said.  “Right now, I’m healthy and focused on the future.”


Sunday’s race, she said, “went really well.  I’ve never raced Ashley Erba before; she’s a fantastic runner.  I took it out conservatively, trying to factor in the wind.  After the mile, I picked it up, then tried to make a break ... then Ashley put in a strong surge ... and I just tried to keep her from getting too far ahead.”


Taylor Werner and Mary Kate Vaughn, the freshman zephyrs who finished third and fourth, were understandably elated to make NXN Finals in their debuts at this level.  “I was really excited and nervous,” said Werner of her thoughts coming in.  “I just wanted to try and stay with the top runners ... at one point, I had dropped back to eighth and my confidence was almost blown ... but I was able to get back up there.”


“We ran side-by-side (near the end),” said Vaughn of she and her fellow 9th-grade qualifier.  “It was a different experience, having this many people to run with.  I just really wanted to stay up there and run as well as I could.