BY TRIBUNE SPORTS STAFF
TERRE HAUTE —
Eastern’s girls cross country team finished a four-year upswing Saturday afternoon with a seventh-place finish at the IHSAA Girls Cross Country State Finals, just a couple spots off the podium. In addition, lead runner Bethany Neeley took a spot on the individual podium with a fifth-place finish to pace a strong effort by the Comets.
“We knew we’d be in the mix so I was very happy with our overall performance,” Eastern coach Brandon Mink said. “Our goal was, for me anyway, I thought we could run about 200 points and we’d have a good shot of making the podium [a top-five finish]. Last year, 230 points got to the top five. We ran really well and got 206 points, and we just had a couple teams that ran slightly better. We can’t control what they do. We just fell a little short, but I’m really proud of them. Every year we’ve gotten a little bit better and I thought we did a nice job [Saturday].”
Carmel took first place with a score of 66, well ahead of the rest of the field. The Greyhounds were followed by West Lafayette (147), Columbus North (158), Franklin Central (160), Hamilton Southeastern (173), Carroll of Allen County (174), Eastern (206) and Northridge (228).
“It was definitely a bittersweet day,” Bethany Neeley said. “Really emotional. This is the last, all of us seniors, our last race. Finished seventh. We really wanted the podium [top-five finish]. Honest, we ran really well, almost as well as we could have. We weren’t that far out, we left upset a little, but not as much as we thought we would.”
Bethany Neeley finished in a time of 18:04.2. Twin sister Brittany Neeley was 29th, finishing in 18:59.9. Sarah Wagner took 70th (19:45.5), Carly Jones was 78th (19:49.4) and Jessica Sprinkles was 115th (20:19.2) to round out the team score. In addition, Avery Ewing was 159th (21:12.8) and Breann Donson was 192nd (23:31.5).
Mishawaka sophomore Anna Rohrer was the individual winner in a time of 17:13.2, followed by Warsaw senior and 2011 state champ Ashley Erba, West Lafayette senior Bobbie Burgess, and Columbus North junior Mackenzie Caldwell. Taking fifth was a high water mark for Bethany Neeley after two other trips to state. Her previous best was 30th.
“I was really, really satisfied. It’s the first time in three years I’ve come down to the cross country state meet and had a good race,” she said. Last season, she’d left the state meet unhappy, and worked for a better outcome as a senior. “We talked a lot about having no regrets, and I wanted to make sure when I crossed that line I had no regrets. It was all about the team.”
Mink came away impressed with his senior quartet.
“I just want to mention, especially for Bethany, how proud I was for her,” he said. “She was a little disappointed the last two times around [at state] and this time she did it just perfect, ran an excellent race, was strong up front early. I knew she was capable of being up there with that top tier of girls. She ran her race to perfection.
“Brittany ran awesome and Sarah ran well, and Breann ran well. We’ll miss them next year, but they set a standard for years to come.”
The seniors won’t be back next season, but the impact on the program should be felt for years to come.
“I think we leave [the program] in a really good spot,” Bethany Neeley said. “Yeah, the team’s going to be down a little bit next year, but I feel we built it up. Our underclassmen, and our middle school program are really good.
“Maybe before, our numbers were low and it was just runners. Now, it’s like maybe I’ll try running, and friends of friends [will try]. the school is a lot more involved now, they want to know how the team did on weekends.”
Mink has enjoyed the upswing.
“I think about four years ago, how we weren’t able to even be competitive in the conference, now we’re seventh at state,” he said. “It’s been an awesome trip.”
Bethany Neeley wanted to make sure that Mink understood how important he’s been in that rise. Having good athletes helps, but it’s not the only thing.
“Coach Mink’s definitely one of the most inspirational people in my life,” she said. “He always knows what to say and when to say it, when to pump you up and what to say when you’re down. [Without him], we’d be good, but not where we are now.”