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Maconaquah brings retooled squad into girls' XC season

BLEND: Maconaquah sophomore Alex Merritt (L) and freshman Zoe Seward (R) finish up the day’s practice with a light run during a recent practice. The Braves bring in a mix of runners to the 2019 girls’ cross country season with a state qualifier in Karli Miller, semi-state qualifier in Haley Salinas and three additional varsity runners joined by two first-time runners and two freshmenas the squad looks to improve on a third-place TRC finish, second-place Logansport Sectional finish and missing out on a team spot in the New Prairie Semi-Sate by four points in 2018.

BY TRENT SCOTT - tscott@perutribune.com

For only a handful of meets during the 2018 season, Maconaquah got to utilize its best girls’ cross country lineup, culminating in the squad finishing four points outside of a semi-state berth.

Fast forward to 2019 where the Braves are looking to figure out just what that best lineup will be as the team brings back five runners that figured into the varsity lineup but does so with no seniors and seven total sophomores and freshmen in the team.

Maconaquah head coach Allen Sayger said the names at the top of the lineup would look familiar but there were numerous moving parts underneath.

“Every season is going to be different because the team is different,” Sayger said. “The number of girls on the cross country team are fairly small; we lost a couple to graduation, another is playing soccer and we have to respect that decision, even if it is a hit because she’s a quality young lady and an asset to any sport she plays in.

“By moving to the high school to teach, I was able to convince a couple of girls not doing a fall sport to jump in while we did get a transfer student from Rochester in as a freshman. For around half the team, this is their first year running high school cross country.

“For many, there’s going to be question of, ‘How do we do this?’” Sayger added. “We’re going to see some growing pains at the start of the season and they’re going to learn a lot about themselves in the first few meets.”

Returning to lead the Braves are juniors Karli Miller, who qualified for the IHSAA Girls’ Cross Country State Finals, and Haley Salinas, who qualified for the New Prairie Semi-State.

Miller comes into the season coming off an injury that limited her participation during track season and while Sayger said she was working her way back into condition, the junior duo had more than running on their plates this year.

“We have no seniors, so we’re relying on the leadership of Karli and Haley this year,” Sayger said. “They’re going to be seniors as juniors and we’ve already started to address these things with them.

“Seniors, if they’ve been there all four years, know all about the highs and lows of the program. Bodies are hurting by September, people are asking why they do this sport and it takes leaders to come in and say, ‘This is why we do this. Come on.’

“Bailey (Hays) was never fond of cross country but she loved being part of a team and was pretty darn good at it,” Sayger added about the Maconaquah graduate. “The things Karli and Haley have to do this year are, while they have individual goals, they have to mind the team goals and how they can make the team better.

“The girls have to walk a fine line between bringing in the younger runners, sacrificing a little bit of themselves to help the others, and qualifying for their goals. Meshing the individual goals and the team goals together makes the team better, something leaders know.”

Also returning for the Braves are sophomores Alex Merritt, Rachel Eby and Isabelle Alvarado, the former who spent much of the previous season working through a hip injury and the latter pair having been running in the sixth and seventh slots in the varsity lineup.

Sayger expected all three to make strides this season as they had a season to become accustom to running at the high school level.

“Alex is healthy and looking good right now,” Sayger pointed out. “We did a time trial earlier and she ran a great time during it.

“Rachel ran as a freshman last year, her body knows what distance is about now and I think we’ll see some great improvements from her. Isabelle had a rough freshman year, which she knew, but she has done a lot of work over the summer and wants to prove herself.”

Four newcomers make up the rest of the squad as sophomores Crystal Bunch and Kaitlyn Nice join the squad, as do freshmen Abby Heath and Zoe Seward, the latter transferring to the school from Rochester.

Both younger girls came in with running experience according to Sayger while the two sophomores were welcome additions to the squad.

“Zoe had a sister that ran at Eastbrook and is a quality young lady coming into a new situation,” Sayger said. “She’s a good kid, a hard worker, has run a lot of miles and has the chance to turn some heads in the conference in sectional.

“Abby comes from the middle school and is learning the difference between running a 3K and a 5K race. Crystal is coming in as a sophomore, never running distance before, and she has grit as she wants to be a Marine.

“Kaitlyn has never run before but she is a cheerleader and a good athlete,” Sayger added. “Her brother (Aaron) runs and she will be the slow cooker; about halfway through the season, things are going to click for her and at a meet, she’ll drop a minute off her time.”

Maconaquah was a distant third in the TRC last season as Manchester and Rochester paced the field while the Braves finished as runner-up to Western in the Logansport Sectional, winning the Wabash Invitational during the season while collecting numerous top-five finishes in other larger races.

By the regional, the full squad was up and operational, running the Panthers close for a semi-state spot according to Sayger.

“We lost by 27 at the sectional but the next week, at the regional, we gave the girls a different game plan,” Sayger noted. “We missed semi-state by four points but we went 27 points to four points in a week’s time.

“The girls showed there the grit that they had and the willingness to risk failure, which is all we ask. If they do that, great things are possible.”

While the current squad is still yet to be settled in, Sayger said the squad had enough talent to challenge for titles and team advancement towards the end of the year, provided the team made it there in one piece unlike the previous year.

“We have a very good shot of winning TRC and the sectional if we’re healthy,” Sayger said. “We have a good chance of qualifying for semi-state if we’re healthy.

“It does come down to (health), especially when you don’t have 30 people on your team. If one person goes down, it has a big impact on things.”

Maconaquah opens the season August 17 when the girls’ squad takes part in the Norwell Invitational.

Sayger said the team had the chance to do some great things in 2019 if it could tap into the potential it has within it.

“While I don’t know the answer yet, I think they do believe they can win the TRC, win the sectional and qualify for semi-state,” Sayger said when asked about where the girls see themselves this season. “Those aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams; they’re obtainable and they’re goals we have here every year.

“We’ll see how it plays out this year as you don’t always know when you have a lot of new runners. We see this as an exciting season and we’re excited to see how things roll in October.”