TERRE HAUTE —
Cross country athletes take an almost perverse pride in the amount of tests — physical, mental, environmental, psychological — their sport asks them to pass, particularly in the biggest meets and at the highest levels of competition.
So there are no apologies necessary for how Terre Haute South’s Jackson Bertoli became the 2013 Indiana high school state champion Saturday afternoon at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course. What happened to Zachery Panning could have happened to Bertoli, after all.
“It wasn’t exactly how I pictured getting a title,” Bertoli said after the race. “I have mixed emotions. I’m happy to have the title, but not how it happened.”
Panning, the 2012 state runner-up, and Bertoli, fourth a year ago, had been high among the pre-meet favorites, and Bertoli served notice last week by winning the semistate at Brown County that he was at or near his peak after a season plagued by injuries.
As the boys race reached its second half Saturday, the lead pack was down to two runners. And with about 1,000 meters to go Panning took the lead.
The Fort Wayne Concordia senior was ahead of Bertoli by more than 10 yards with 400 meters to go, but then the competition took its toll. First was a misstep, then a stagger, then a fall. It’s a dance seen often at state-championship meets.
“I knew I was gaining,” Bertoli said. “We were coming down the home stretch and I was laying it on the line.
“I saw him stumble and start to fall, and I had a weird feeling in my stomach.”
Coach Kyle Walsh of the Braves had a good vantage point at that time.
“At that point I didn’t care how [the race] finished, I was so proud that [Bertoli] put himself in that position,” Walsh said. “He did everything tactically that we talked about and he had a great, great run down the home stretch.
“When you think that he went five weeks without running, cross-training twice a day … I’m so proud I can’t put it into words,” the coach added.
Lest anyone think that Walsh wasn’t be empathetic about Panning’s plight, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I know what Panning feels,” Walsh said, and he meant that literally. Ten years ago, Walsh added, he was in fourth place with 25 meters to go at the state championship race at Bloomington and finished 32nd after his own collapse.
“It had to be a devastating feeling [for Panning], especially on a stage like the state finals,” Bertoli concluded. “If he had been feeling good, he probably would have gotten the title.
“But it probably won’t be the last time I go down the home stretch with him.”
Bertoli is the first Wabash Valley boy to win a state cross country championship. Terre Haute North’s TaPring Goatee was the girls state champion four years ago.