Like many runners attempting to run cross country for the first time, Emma Dzwierzynski began her career easing into the race, not even sure if she was physically up to finishing the 3-mile test.

That was then. Now Dzwierzynski knows she can finish what she starts — and that she can be a front-runner no matter what the competition offers.

The Evanston sophomore scored a 79th place individual finish at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state cross country meet at Detweiller Park in Peoria thanks to a strong start in the biggest race of her young career.

Dzwierzynski’s finish was the highest for an ETHS female runner at State since Katherine Page placed  62nd  back in 2005. She was clocked in 18 minutes, 4 seconds after starting out with a 5:39 split over the first mile, her fastest opening split of the season.

“I felt really good the first two miles and I was under 6 minutes for my pace,” said the ETHS sophomore. “On that last mile I struggled a little bit mentally. I’ve never run in a race this big before. I was hoping to break 18 minutes, but I’m really excited about the way I ran. I ran the best I could. I gave it my all.

“Last year I would start races slow to just see how I felt, but I knew that this year I had to go out faster in every race.  I was more nervous before the sectional (she qualified 11th in 18:03). Today I was looking to run with (fellow conference member) Christine Mujica (of Niles West), but I couldn’t find her at all. My other strategy was to go out fast so I wouldn’t get caught in the pack. I didn’t want to put myself in a bad position.”

Dzwierzynski is the first Evanston sophomore to qualify for State as an individual since Natalie Fenn in 2004 and that was no surprise to first-year head coach Rosette Ochoa, who spotted Dzwierzynski’s potential when she came up to the varsity at the end of her freshman season.

“Last year she was disappointed with the way the season ended, but she realized she could keep up with our No. 1 runner (state qualifier Kyla Steman),” Ochoa said. “She’s a lot more confident now and she’s really focused. Her workouts have been amazing this year.

“She just had to realize what she wanted this year and verbalize it out loud. Emma has matured a lot throughout the season. She has strengthened the team culture with her hard work and commitment. This was a test run for her — definitely a learning experience — and she really held her own today. Now she knows what she needs to do for next year.”

“I went Downstate last year to watch Kyla run,” Dzwierzynski added. “I was really upset that I didn’t make it last year and that was the motivation for me this year. I was so close last year and Kyla really pushed me. At the sectional I lost to her by less than a second. That’s why I was extremely nervous before the sectional, more nervous than I was today.”