Emma Dzwierzynski ran 5 seconds faster and improved 2 places from last year to this year at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state cross country finals in Peoria Saturday.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But ecstatic was the only way the Evanston junior could describe her feelings after she broke the 18 minute time barrier over the 3 mile test at Peoria’s Detweiller Park.

Dzwierzynski’s time of 17:59 earned 77th place overall in a highly-competitive meet that included a state record performance by Judy Pendergast of Naperville North. Pendergast’s winning time of 15:54 shattered the old state mark by 8 seconds.

“I think more than anything, that 18 minutes was a mental barrier for me,” said Dzwierzynski. “I was really close to it at the conference meet and I’m just really excited that I was able to break 18 Saturday. Now I know I can do it!

“It was a mental barrier that I had to push through. Now, hopefully, I can do it more often next year. Averaging a 6-minute mile is a huge goal for all runners, I think, and I was around it all season. I definitely took the next step at State.”

The ETHS standout admitted that maintaining a consistent pace was “something I struggled with all year.” Saturday, she achieved her best time with an uncharacteristic performance in which her final mile split  was just about equal to her first mile.

Usually, Dzwierzynski’s first mile split is her fastest and she hangs on from there.

“I was in the 5:50s for the first mile (at Peoria), then I was a lot slower when I got stuck (in a pack) with some girls who were apparently not going that fast,” she said. “Then I realized that maybe these weren’t the girls I should be running with, so I pushed it more and ran that same mile in the same range as the first mile.

“That’s never happened to me before. But while I was running I felt good and I felt fast, so I wasn’t that surprised when I saw the clock at the finish. I was just ecstatic when I saw that. I know moving up two places doesn’t sound that impressive, but it was a little more competitive field than last year and I’m proud of myself for the way I ran.”

Dzwierzynski, unlike the majority of the runners in the state cross country field, doesn’t run track in the spring, preferring to  devote her energies to soccer. And she’s not about to change her mind about playing for an ETHS soccer squad that could rank among the state’s best.

“This year I did more workouts on the track because I recognized that I needed to work more on my speed,” Dzwierzynski said. “I will stick with soccer in the spring because I really love it. In the summer I’ll keep running and try not to lose the endurance I’ve built up. Most of my summers are focused on running.

“I think doing two sports helps in both. I have the endurance for soccer that a lot of girls don’t have because of cross country, and soccer helps me build my short sprints for running.”