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Putting the “student” ahead of “athlete” cost the Evanston girls cross country team their No. 1 runner for Saturday’s Niles West Regional competition.
So the Wildkits turned to a pack attack to get the job done and secure a berth at next week’s Lake Park Sectional.
With junior Hope Leman absent — taking a college placement test — the Kits still had enough juice to place fourth in the team standings and earned automatic advancement as a team to the sectional.
Loyola (39 points), New Trier (40) and Maine South (57) joined the Wildkits (86) as team qualifiers. The fact that the Illinois High School Association conducts a three-step postseason — instead of just sectional and State tournaments as in most other sports — and that the regional only eliminates half of the teams helped ease the loss of Leman from the ETHS lineup.
She’ll be back in action for the sectional, no matter what her test score turns out to be.
Seniors Ciara Connell, 11th in 19 minutes, 28 seconds, and Hannah Lipman, 12th in 19:30, stepped up to lead Evanston Saturday. Also contributing top 25 finishes were freshman Ella Gutierrez, 18th in 19:40; senior Gabrielle Horton, 20th in 19:43; and senior Eavan Norman, 25th in 20:18.
Senior Jadyn Denlow (26th in 20:20) and sophomore Lauren Dain (28th in 20:27) also ran well for the Wildkits, who had to adjust to a different dynamic without Leman there to set the pace and run with the front-runners.
“We did what we came out to do today,” said Evanston coach Rose Ochoa. “I thought it was a nice performance for all of the girls. We’ve always tried to pack in the past, but this time they were more team-oriented and there was more communication.
“In the past sometimes they’d get nervous if they didn’t take it out fast in the first mile. We’ve been trying to find a pace that works for everyone, because that’s the key in these big races. And next week will be the true test for us.
“As far as Hope goes, I’m not concerned about her missing the race. She’s been so consistent for us in every race, and have one race off is probably the best thing for her right now.”
“It was definitely weird, not having our best runner here,” said Connell. “But I think that motivated us to work as a team, to do it together. I’ve never run off of Hope, so it didn’t change anything for me. She’s faster and I always just let her go (during a race). I went out slower than I usually do, but I finished strong and got a season best.
“And since we really weren’t worried about advancing, this was a good time for us to try a new strategy.”
Connell, Lipman, Gutierrez and Horton all reached the mile mark in the 3.0 mile test at around 6 minutes, 32 seconds with Norman and Denlow not far behind that pack. Loyola Academy freshman Ellie Grammas won the race in 18:26.3, 45 seconds ahead of runnerup Bridget Forbes of New Trier.