TERRE HAUTE —
The high school cross country course at Bedford North Lawrence is a challenge in good weather, a treacherous beast when conditions are dicey.
It was 20 years ago that Terre Haute North star Angie Draper collapsed in the snow at what was then the Bedford Semistate — “The boys who found me thought I was dead,” she said later that day — but she recovered to run in the state finals the following week thanks to teammate Sarah Munoz rising to the occasion and leading the Patriot team to a fourth-place finish.
Last Saturday at the Bedford Regional there was no snow but plenty of rain, a lot of mud and some very slippery slopes on the hilly course. And this time it was a boy from Terre Haute South stepping up in similar, if not quite as dramatic, fashion as Riley Stohler placed second individually in leading the Braves to second place as a team and a berth in this week’s Brown County Semistate.
Jackson Bertoli, Stohler’s teammate with multiple all-state honors in both cross country and track, had a traction problem with his injury-influenced footwear, falling on more than one occasion, but the Braves didn’t miss a beat.
Of course that Bertoli injury had helped Stohler get accustomed to leading the Braves.
“I was already in front of [Bertoli], and I never really looked back,” Stohler said this week in describing his regional run. “I knew he’d come along … but then I thought near the end, ‘Where’s Jackson?’ ”
It’s a question that Bertoli would probably tell you was asked all too often this season, as a nagging problem with an Achilles tendon kept the South star out of quite a few meets. Thanks to Stohler and the rest of the Braves, however, the team didn’t suffer all that much and heads to Brown County ranked sixth in the state.
“Now I go out in front with the top group of guys [at the start of the race],” Stohler said, “and with Jackson back, now there are two of us up there.
“I like the fresh air up front.”
Actually, the Braves are triply blessed, coach Kyle Walsh corrected this week.
“We have one of the best top-three combinations in the state [in Bertoli, Stohler and Spencer Danielson, who was sixth with Bertoli eighth last weekend],” the coach said, “and they all feed off each other well.”
With Bertoli hampered, Walsh knew what Stohler’s strategy would be.
“He was going for the win,” Walsh said. “The only people he’d be comfortable losing to now are Jackson and Spence.”
Stohler had been a team leader before, but at a different level of competition. His first two years of high school were at Riverton Parke, where he wasn’t really challenged for the top spot on the team.
“When I came here [to South] I had a whole team to run with, and I had people who were better than me,” Stohler said.
“He’s watched Jackson do it at an all-state level, and Riley saw that and stepped up,” Walsh said. “He saw what it takes to get there … not everyone has the luxury of having a Bertoli to learn from.”
When Bertoli wasn’t able to run earlier this season, “it made me our front-runner, and gave me a lot of confidence,” Stohler said. Therefore at Bedford, “I had to be out front to set the pace for Spencer … I was in Jackson’s shoes for a little bit.
“It’s even better with the two of us [up front],” Stohler added. “We’re looking to [finish on the] podium at state.”
Advancing from the Brown County race to the LaVern Gibson Championship Course the following week necessitates a top-six team finish, something the Braves should be able to accomplish even in an extremely competitive field.
Second-ranked Columbus North and third-ranked Bloomington South, the Bedford winner last week, will be there along with 12th-ranked Bloomington North. The battle for the last two spots in the state finals should be a fierce an unpredictable one, with Northview and Terre Haute North prominent among the contenders.
Walsh would love to see his team sneak up on either or both of the higher-ranked teams as the Braves try for their fourth straight state-finals appearance.
“The target’s on them, not on us,” he said. “I think we have seven guys who will run their best race of the season, and if we do that the placing will take care of itself.”
In Saturday’s girls race, there’s another second-ranked team from Columbus North that’s favored to lead the way, with 14th-ranked Bloomington South and 17th-ranked Terre Haute North the other favored teams in the field.
Coach Mike Dason’s Patriots were second to Bloomington South at the regional, but he and his runners are happy to leave the Bedford course behind them.
“We did not run to our potential [at Bedford],” Dason said this week, “but we’re moving to Brown County, and the girls love this course … and they also love [the] Gibson [course].”
North’s lineup was still uncertain earlier in the week, although Lindsay Welker (third at Bedford), Jessi Conley, Mallory Sanders and Hannah Bunch are considered sure things. Freshman Devon Zeck, North’s top runner in more than one early-season race, is injured and won’t be back for the last two weekends, however.
As in the boys race, the team places beyond the top three teams are hard to predict. Terre Haute South’s girls should contend, also looking for a fourth straight spot in the finals.