A pair of Leo senior cross-country runners will be side-by-side at the starting line Saturday at the West Noble Regional. They'll be headed the same direction, on the same path, in hopes of a top-15 finish and spot in the Oct. 20 New Haven Semistate.
But Jennifer Emery and Lauren Hamilton have taken different courses to this point.
Saturday's regional meet begins at 10:30 a.m. with the girls meet; the boys meet will follow. The top five teams in each race and the top 15 finishers overall will advance to the New Haven Semistate at The Plex in Fort Wayne. Emery (eighth) and Hamilton (14th) advanced to the regional as individuals.
Emery returns Saturday to the site of her transformation. It was a year ago that she raced in the regional meet, but only because Leo had advanced as a team. The excitement, the drama and the competition sparked a fire.
“Something clicked in her head. It was a turning point for Jen because she got a taste of what it's like to race at that level,” said Leo coach Jared Minnick. “Up to that point (in her career), she was happy to just be part of the team. She settled instead challenging herself.”
Minnick said he always knew Emery had more in her but that athletes must come to that realization themselves.
“The talent was always there but it was like she never pushed through the pain,” Minnick said. “Now, she's broken through and it's like, wow!”
The transformation began immediately after last cross-country season when, at Hamilton's suggestion, Emery signed up for USATF cross-country. She was teamed up with top runners from other schools, and their influence paid dividends.
“I realized just how hard you have to work to be good,” Emery said. “I was on a team of girls who had big dreams.”
So instead of taking the winter off, Emery trained through the cold months and had a great track season. She continued working through the summer in preparation for her senior cross-country season.
Emery's personal best before this season was 20 minutes, 54 seconds. This season, she routinely breaks 20 minutes. Now she admits running fast is fun. It took some mental exercises to make it happen.
“It was hard for me to understand that I should be up front, racing with the fast girls,” Emery said. “I was so used to running in the middle of the pack.”
For Hamilton, it's been the exact opposite: She was a middle school standout whose success carried over to her freshman year at Leo where she finished 27th at the IHSAA championships. She was the first Leo girl to ever advance to the state finals and was within a second of being all-state.
The future looked bright, but as often happens with sophomores, a slump came.
“I was iron and vitamin D deficient and didn't know it,” Hamilton says of her sophomore season where she failed to advance to the state finals. More hurdles presented themselves her junior year, but only because she overdid it.
“I was running great and training very hard and then in July tore a tendon in my foot,” Hamilton said. “I missed the first half of the season.”
Hamilton was able to rebound and was a semistate qualifier. But she learned her lesson: don't over-train. So this past summer, after a solid track season, she rested.
“I took more time off than I have in the past because I wanted to be healthy,” Hamilton said.
The results were solid: She ran and raced well early in the season, placing second at the West Noble Invitational in 19 minutes, 19 seconds. But then a sinus infection followed by strep throat altered plans.
“We sat her a few dual meets so she could recover,” Minnick said. “She wanted to come back for the New Haven Classic, and that was kinda early. She's close now.”
Hamilton said the struggles over the past two years have helped her understand and endure the last month.
“I've learned to be patient,” Hamilton said. “At sectionals, I just knew I had to be top 15, so I relaxed and made sure I was in the right spot during the race. Before, I probably would've raced straight from the start and pushed myself.”
So this Saturday, despite coming from varied places and paces, look for the two Leo girls to follow the same path.
“I'm excited to run at regionals again,” said Emery. “My goal is to get to state, but this Saturday it's just about getting top 15.”
Says Hamilton: “My ultimate would be to get top 10 on Saturday, but really I just need to get top 15. Then next week, get top 15 and make it to state.”