TERRE HAUTE — Even though Jackson Bertoli lost to an Indiana runner for the first time this season Saturday in the prestigious FlashRock Invitational at Carmel, the Terre Haute South junior is considered one of the top contenders for the 2012 IHSAA boys championship in cross country.
Hamilton Southeastern senior Troy Reeder, No. 3 in the state finals last season, finished first Saturday in 15 minutes, 19.8 seconds. Bertoli placed second in a personal-best time of 15:24.5.
The only other 2012 meet that Bertoli came in second was the Terre Haute Savings Bank Invitational on Sept. 1 at LaVern Gibson Championship Course. That’s where he finished 5.5 seconds behind winner Jacob Thompson of Louisville (Ky.) Holy Cross — 15:39.0 to 15:44.5.
There’s no denying that Bertoli has been climbing the ladder to success in this summer/fall sport and the best may be to come.
As a freshman in 2010, he was 183rd in the state finals with a time of 18:25.0. As a sophomore in 2011, he improved to 34th in 16:09.7.
In 2012, the 6-foot-2 Bertoli is running noticeably faster.
“The whole season has been phenomenal, just going through it day by day and not worrying too much about the meets ahead, taking practice every single day and working on getting better,” he said last week. “I try to keep the big picture in mind, even though it’s still somewhat early in the season.”
Bertoli has been dominant locally, winning the Vigo County boys title last Wednesday at Rea Park. He took it relatively easy, checking in at only 16:44.5. But by slowing down slightly, he helped boost the performance of sophomore teammate Spencer Danielson, who crossed he finish line right behind him in a personal-best 16:45.3.
“Jackson, he’s a great teammate,” Danielson said after his second-place county finish. “He’s super motivational. He helps you every way that he can … We cross-trained a lot together over the summer. He would always motivate me.”
“This summer made a huge difference for [Bertoli],” South boys coach Kyle Walsh added. “He came to a couple of my running camps and one of the things I challenged him on is the mental side of the sport. So he’s kinda made a conscious effort to take the team under his wing and bring the guys in to teach them what’s helped him be successful, outside of just everyday practice time… He’s taken that challenge to heart and it’s exciting to watch what he’s doing with these young guys.”
Walsh described Bertoli as “a dream athlete to coach.
“He’s the type who does everything you ask and more,” the Braves’ coach explained. “He meets me before school to get in the pool for a pool workout. That way, we can get an extra cardio workout in without having to add extra miles on his legs.
“He runs every workout specifically as we have planned. He runs every race to the exact strategy that we set beforehand. He’s also very good at accepting feedback. We have good communication. He understands what I want, I understand what he wants and we work well together that way.”
Looking ahead, Bertoli and Walsh believe a top-10 finish for No. 15-ranked South at the state finals — Oct. 27 at the Gibson course — is realistic.
“Team-wise, the highest finish South’s ever had in the state meet is 11th,” Bertoli mentioned. “So beating that is a big team goal for us. We want to get 10 guys under 17 minutes and seven guys under 16:40.
“Individually, I’m not too worried about time. I just want to place as high as I can in as many meets as possible and try to lead the team to our best finish in history.”
Still, Bertoli admits crossing the finish line before every other runner in his hometown Oct. 27 wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“That’s definitely a goal,” he said with a grin. “I try to block it out a little bit. I just want to focus on each meet as it comes. Then once the state meet gets here, I know coach Walsh and my team will have me ready and we’ll see how I compete on that day.”
The indianarunner.com website certainly takes Bertoli seriously as a threat to win the boys state title. On Sept. 5, it ran an article with the headline “Is Jackson Bertoli the Favorite to Win State?” That came out a few days after the Terre Haute Savings Bank Invitational, where Reeder placed fifth in 15:58.3, almost 14 seconds behind runner-up Bertoli.
“Jackson was all-state in track his sophomore year [finishing eighth in the boys 3,200-meter run] and he was 34th in the state for cross country,” Walsh pointed out. “Now he’s a junior and we’d be happy with a top-five finish in state, but we really think he’s got a chance to be a state champion. That would be the ultimate goal this year … but we realize there’s a ton of talent in this state.”
Down the road, Bertoli realizes he will need to choose a college, but he’s in no hurry to make that decision.
“He has a lot of room to grow [heading into college],” Walsh noted. “His training has been strong, but he has a lot more that he has to give. He’s nowhere near his peak of potential. I see the upside for him as limitless. I think he can be a really competitive runner at the [NCAA] Division I level.”
“I’m pretty much open to anywhere right now,” Bertoli said, mentioning that one of his older brothers (Anthony) went to Indiana State and the other (Ben) went to the University of Indianapolis. Both competed in track and field.
Anthony currently works as an assistant track coach for the University of Northern Iowa and Ben is an assistant track and cross country coach at Danville High School.
Jackson Bertoli’s father, former ISU volleyball coach Jim Bertoli, thinks having two older brothers so involved in running when Jackson was younger proved influential in his development.
“They both were in track and field and cross country,” Jim Bertoli recalled. “When Jack was younger, they were constantly giving him input and encouragement. Having the opportunity to look up to his older brothers motivated him. It just put him in the environment where he was familiar with cross country and track [at a young age].”
Interestingly, Jackson Bertoli didn’t run cross country while in middle school at Honey Creek a few years ago, choosing instead to play tennis and run track. Then someone convinced him to enter the annual “Run Through the Jungle 5K” at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Clay County in May 2010.
Only 14 at the time, Bertoli finished second overall in his first 5-kilometer race.
Back to the present and immediate future, South’s boys are scheduled to compete today against Sullivan at Rea Park, although Walsh said he’ll probably rest Bertoli. The sectional will be Oct. 9 at the Gibson course.