By Josh Sigler
Russiaville — Not much surprises Eastern girls cross country coach Brandon Mink these days.
With the caliber of team he’s had for the past four years, it’s not surprising.
The No. 6-ranked Comets put in the most dominant showing in recent memory in Tuesday’s Mid-Indiana Conference championships at Oakbrook Valley Park, taking the top five positions for a perfect score of 15 to complete what is now a four-peat for the current senior class.
“The course was a little bit slow, and it’s funny because they have such high goals that they get 15 points, but are like ‘Darn, I should’ve run faster,’” Mink said. “At the same time, we couldn’t be any more proud of them for coming through. Especially those seniors who have been here for four years. Four years in a row as conference champions is very special. They did an awesome job.”
Senior Bethany Neeley, the reigning track state champion in the 1,600-meter run, controlled the pace of the race throughout, and broke away from the pack in the latter stages to take top honors going away in 18:43, marking the fifth straight time she’s captured top honors in an MIC race. Twin sister Brittany Neeley wound up second at 19:49.
“This is a huge confidence booster for not just the team, but the program as a whole,” Bethany said. “We wrote goals down at the beginning of the season, and to sweep this [meet] was one of them. In a couple more weeks we want to do more things, but this is starting the postseason off the right way.
“Right now, we try to work together to run a smart race. Brit is coming off of an ankle sprain — nothing serious — but we’re trying to get her back to running full speed. We’re trying to treat these [late season meets] as a pretty hard workout so our legs will be feeling good here in a couple weeks.”
Freshman Carly Jones took third in 19:58, giving Eastern three runners under the 20-minute mark. Sophomore Avery Ewing finished fourth in 20:02, and senior Sarah Wagner finished off the sweep in fifth place in 20:11, giving the squad a solid start to what it hopes is a memorable postseason.
“I’m constantly amazed by them but I shouldn’t be at this point because they keep raising the bar higher,” Mink said. “They have tremendous faith in themselves and that’s what’s helped a lot of them. They just keep believing. They don’t care that they’re this little school in Greentown, Ind. They believe they can compete with the big dogs, so to speak, and they keep doing that every year.”
In the boys race, Western claimed MIC-champion honors for the third straight year, taking five of the top 13 spots on its home course to win comfortably.
“To win your conference meet, it’s good not only for your team, but the school as well,” Western coach Gary Jewell said. “It really helps out when we’re trying to get that all-sports trophy at the end of the year, and this will go a long way towards that.”
Eastern junior Lewis Duke, fresh off a first-place finish in last weekend’s Howard County meet at Northwestern, stayed with the lead pack throughout the race to put himself in position, and broke away with 800 meters to go to take conference champion honors in 16:27. Hamilton Heights’ Schildemeier finished second in 16:48.
“I just made sure I stayed behind [the front two runners] and not let them get too far ahead of me,” Duke said. “I knew it was going to take everything I had. I knew at [the] Culver [Academies Invitational] I was close to Craig. I knew he was going to be tough and I couldn’t slack at all. This is really exciting for me. All the hard work in the summer paid off. It shows that hard work and dedication early in the season pays off.”
Northwestern took second place in both races. Taryn Thor led the Tiger girls with a sixth-place showing in 20:25, while Zach Duranto led the Tiger boys, also taking sixth place in 17:57.
“This is right where we wanted to be right now,” Northwestern boys and girls coach Dave Stevens said. “We’ve been teaching them all year long how to train to go at these meets one after another. Now, we get a week off, which is something they’re not used to, so that’ll be nice for them to get to rest a little bit. We’re right where we wanted to be — all my kids.”
In the girls race, Cass finished in third and Western was fourth, followed by Hamilton Heights, Maconaquah and Peru. Taylor ran incomplete.
Western’s Emma Nixon finished seventh in 21:03, while Cass’ Gabi Carney took eighth 21:07. Western’s Nicole Hampshire (ninth, 21:12) and Cass’ Jenna Yeakley (10th, 21:24) rounded out the All-MIC honorees in the girls’ race.
Western’s Matt Grider finished third in the boys race in 16:55. Jacob Bradshaw (seventh, 18:09) and Caleb Maddox (ninth, 18:19) added all-conference showings for the Panthers, while Riley Worl took 11th in 18:28 and Austin Elliott followed in 13th in 18:32.
“At times, we need to run a little bit more intelligently,” Jewell said. “I think we may went out a little too fast. Jacob told me he went out way too fast, and I told him that as long as he recognizes that we can work with it. Matt, I think he could’ve run a little more intelligently than he did. This is what happens: Your opponents get better. Last year, Matt beat Craig pretty handily but Craig beat him [Tuesday]. And, Lewis Duke finished ahead of both of them. Lewis ran a great race [Tuesday]. This is the kind of course where you have to come in with a plan and not try to run away from people, because if you do, the course comes back and bites you. I’ve seen that happen to a lot [at Oakbrook Valley].”
Adam Schaaf added a fourth-place finish for Eastern, which took fourth behind third-place Hamilton Heights, in 17:12. Peru finished fifth, followed by Maconaquah and Cass. Taylor ran incomplete.
Maconaquah’s Quinn Reinhardt finished fifth in 17:14, followed by Duranto. Northwestern’s Charlie Neher was eighth in 18:13, while teammate Andrew Fackler claimed the final all-conference spot in 10th at 18:24.