NEW CARLISLE — The diminutive stature, all 5-feet and 85 pounds of Lillian Zelasko, belies the bulldog inside the New Prairie freshman.
“She’s a natural,” Cougars coach Julie Jeszenszky said. “You watch her run and it’s beautiful. She just goes. She’s not only a natural, she works hard at it. She deserves every bit of what she’s doing out here. We do our hokem karem, and my fiance who ran in high school, he was on my team, doing the same leg as Lilly. After they finished, he told me she went out really hard and I thought she was going to die and I would catch her. There was no way she was going to keep this pace up and she did.”
Zelasko toughed out the heat and humidity Saturday morning to finish seventh in the Class AA Division at the New Prairie Invitational in 20 minutes, 27.9 seconds.
“It’s by the far the biggest race I’ve ever been in,” she said. “So many people do it, it’s exciting.”
While she’s a freshman, Zelasko is no stranger to running or New Prairie. Both her grandpa and her dad did the sport, Brian Zelasko running on the 1994 New Prairie team that was state runner-up.
“They didn’t really expect me to run,” Lillian said. “It’s something I chose to do on my own.”
That came in sixth grade, when she started with the NP middle school cross country team. Three years later, she, Audrey Henning and Ilayna Baltes comprise three of the Cougar’s top four spots.
“I got to know them really well,” Zelasko said. “It’s gone better than I expected.”
New Prairie finished fourth as a team with 130 points, just behind Culver Academies (129) and Morgan Township (127). Rochester (114) was first.
“I’m really happy with how the girls did,” Jeszenszky said. “They’re putting in a lot of really good work. We’ve got to close up the gap between four and five if we’re going to do something as a team. I’ve been telling them that. It’s nothing new to them. Four doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to have a five. There was a realization we have something special here they could do something with, and they’ve been packing up at practice, getting into it. They’re all cross country through and through. They understand it. It’s their main thing. I’m excited.”
South Central’s Adelaide Young Brust was Class A runner-up in 20:27.6, trailing only Kouts freshman Kassidy Gregory (20:12.6).
“I could have been faster, but I’m still working out the hill,” Young Brust said. “I’m grateful I ran early. The last K, all the sun was beating down, so it takes its toll. I just need to work on re-setting everything once I’m past the hill. My coach always says the last two K are a new race. You’re past the hill, it’s all flat, try to start over once you get out of those woods. That would have been the time to creep up, a mile or so left. I’m sure mentally I could have pushed through that, but it gets tough. There are races where you feel yourself going down and you can’t do anything about it. Those are the worst times and this was kind of one of those days. It’s good to always remember it’s going to be over, you just have to keep going.”
As always, the race is a valuable prelude to what lies ahead.
“I run New Prairie up to four times a year, so it dulls the sparkle a little bit, knowing I’m going to have more high stakes races here,” Young Brust said. “I’m just trying to feel it out. This is sort of the beginning of the second half of the season. We’re in the middle of some intense training, big miles, long workouts.”
In the boys AAA race, La Porte’s Connor Havens (16:49) and Cole Raymond (16:57) finished seventh and 10th, respectively, leading the Slicers to a seventh-place team finish.
“New Prairie Invite, it’s always hot,” Havens said. “It’s the same every year. I’ve had a bad race here before, so the first K, negative thoughts are creeping in. (Cole) takes it out hard to make sure we have someone up there and I kind of sit in the back. I’m better at coming up slowly. We’re right there for each other. It was a crazy race. People who were supposed to be up in the top five were behind us, then this guy was up there who’s usually in the back. It was a mediocre type of day for me.”
Raymond pressed the pace as usual, hitting his target place in the end.
“My goal was five through 10,” he said. “I want to position myself well early. One of these times, I got to be feeling good. I’ll keep trying. I like walked up Agony Hill. I was in like 20th, I felt slow early. I can finish the last 400, (Connor’s) kick strings out from a mile away. I just try to hang on.”
Still rounding into cross country shape after a summer of basketball, Marquette’s Jake Tarnow took ninth in the A race in 17:33.6.
“If you’re breaking down mentally, you can’t stop. You’ve got to find a way to push through it,” he said. “It’s definitely harder than basketball, especially out in the heat like that. You’re not stopping every 10 seconds for a ball out of bounds or something. Right before we ran, the sun came out. I wanted to get around 17:30 or under, and I was right there. I was feeling really good the first two miles. I was focused, under control. I’ve had a problem with my calf tightening up, and in the woods back there, it started tensing up. I was just looking to see what guys are with who, seeing where they are and working off them. I haven’t had a lot of hard training, only a couple weeks.”