OXFORD — Her name was called, but Kaylan Howard barely reacted.
Perhaps it was because she was sick — the Twin Lakes senior ran Saturday’s Harrison Regional hosted by Benton Central while ill, and still managed to finish in the top 35 and run a decent pace.
Howard, though, quickly placed one of her hands on that of teammate Tess Lilly. Howard’s name was the ninth individual called out, which left one more — the top 10 individual runners not on a top-5 team also earned spots at the New Prairie Semi-State meet. Howard secured her fourth consecutive trip to New Prairie, but would Lilly?
Seconds later, Lilly’s name was called out and the ebullient senior giggled with glee. Her streak — and that of the Lilly family — would continue.
“I feel amazing. I’m just super-thankful for the opportunity to be able to come run and do it,” Lilly said. “At the beginning, no, I didn’t think there was a shot. I was really hopeful for our team, but for me, I thought it was either our team or just not (at all).”
Lilly hugged Howard, then teammate Gabi Lane.
“She was so negative, and I was like, ‘Come on, Tess. We’re going to do it together. Don’t make me do it alone. Don’t make me go alone,’” Howard joked. “And we did it — we’re going together.”
Howard placed 32nd in 21 minutes, 21.3 seconds, a 6:52 pace. Lilly was six runners back, in 21:41.2. Her pace was 6:58.7.
“The fact you can’t quit,” Lilly said of her motivation in a deeper, tougher field. “At the beginning, you knew people were counting on you and every time someone would cheer for you’ say ‘you got it’ or call your name, you have to make sure in your heart you push to get it. You have to go for it.”
Howard and Lilly were two of three Indians runners, and seven White County individuals, who advanced to the semi-state level. No boys or girls team moved on — the Twin Lakes girls (182 points) and Frontier boys (155) each placed sixth, one spot off an automatic qualifying mark. The Falcons were 11 points behind fifth-place Lafayette Jefferson.
“I know some of our boys — that was their goal,” Frontier head coach Melissa Culver-Pekny said. “They wanted it, but we didn’t know how close we could be. For us to be that close … we accomplished everything we set out to accomplish this season.”
The Falcons qualified a pair of boys — senior Branden Simmons and junior Thomas Tullius. Tullius placed 17th overall in 17:23.7, a 5:35.9 pace, and was fourth among individuals. Simmons was 23rd in 17:32.4, a pace of 5:38.7. Team-point wise, Tullius counted for 15 points and Simmons, 21.
“Overall, our team did an amazing job at regionals,” Tullius said. “Several ran their best times this season. It showed what we could do as runners. After losing by 11 points to Lafayette Jeff, we now know what we need to improve upon for next year.”
Culver-Pekny marveled at her program’s improvement over a half decade. Its three-man senior class — Simmons, Coby Ingersoll and Luc Sproles — helped the team rise from dead last at the sectional meet when they were in eighth grade.
“For us, in five years, to have won a sectional championship and to be 11 points away from going to the semi-state as a team, that is amazing,” Culver-Pekny said. “Many boys were disappointed they didn’t move on as a team, but nobody’s head should be hanging.”
Twin Lakes freshman Justin Scott crossed the line two spots behind Simmons in 25th, with a time of 17:34.7. He was the seventh individual placement to qualify for New Prairie, and used a 30-second PR time to punch his ticket.
“I feel very accomplished right now. I’m very glad I’m moving to semi-state,” he said. “I didn’t think I could do it, but I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I PR’d. I’m very grateful.”
Howard and Twin Lakes head coach Mark Wyant both felt older brother Jacob influenced Justin. Jacob Scott’s senior-year regional time was 17:14, and he was on the scene Saturday.
Justin was in the midst of explaining what drove PR time, but paused. Howard whispered “beat Jacob’s time” to him, and Justin repeated it. Then he smiled.
“That will come … maybe my sophomore year,” Justin said.
“He’s been trying to get close to his brother’s times, and the competition (at the regional helps),” Wyant said of Justin. “Jacob was there (Saturday), so I figured he needs Jacob there to push him. But he’s been working hard, and he deserves all that he can get.”
Scott was the third Twin Lakes runner, matched in total by Frontier. The Falcons also qualified junior Courtney Gutwein, who placed 28th in 20:59.0, a pace of 6:45.2. She was the sixth individual to qualify on the girls’ side, which was an improvement from just getting in as a sophomore.
“I improved from last year … and under 21 so I am really happy,” she said.
Culver-Pekny noted it was the second consecutive season Frontier advanced three runners to semi-state. It almost had a fourth — Emma Blissett was one placement and two seconds behind Lilly.
“Emma was so close to making it. … Everyone did their best and I am proud of them all for putting it all out for their last race of the season,” Gutwein said of her team.
Like Lilly and Blissett, North White’s Dominick Hernandez was caught in a wait-and-see moment. He placed 32nd in 17:50.6, but knew a finish outside the top 30 might put him on the edge.
“I’m pleased to be able to advance to semi state the conditions were good on Saturday and I was ready,” Hernandez said.
That coach, Ashley Culross, also was nervous as names were being read off because of a template switch. A week earlier at the sectional, names were read off from final qualifier, or 10th, to first. On Saturday, names were read from top qualifier to 10th, which produced the drama Lilly encountered and some for Hernandez.
“We thought it was the same way (as last week), but we didn’t hear his name right away,” Culross said. “We knew the Rossville kid (Nicholas Shedron) was right in front of him, so when they announced the Rossville kid, we thought that meant he didn’t make it. But then we were even more excited when they did say his name (right after).”
Like Scott, Hernandez PR’d by 30 seconds. The junior did so because he maintained a 5:44.6 pace from start to finish.
“He always tends to go out fast and not be able to maintain it,” Culross said. “It was great he was able to maintain it Saturday. He went out just like he needed to to get where we wanted him.”
Added Hernandez: “My coach has spent a long time to try to get me to kick it in at the end of the race and I did that Saturday and if it weren’t for that I might not have made it.”
Most of the county’s runners ran personal-best times at the regional, with a lot of those time drops in double-digit increments. Frontier’s Campbell Pekny nearly cleared a minute, settling for a 50-second improvement of her Benton Central Sectional time.
Even though she was sick, Howard sill managed to shave 14 seconds off her sectional time, placing 32nd in 21:21.3.
“I don’t really feel good at all,” she said after the race. “ But I just — I didn’t slow down. I knew if I slowed down, it was not going to be good. I just pushed myself even harder.
“I think we all knew what wanted and we just — we wanted it and I think we ran our hearts out. I’m really proud of us.”
“She’s a fighter, so I knew where to count her at, and I knew Tess would come through,” Wyant said, adding he kept a secret from the third Lilly to reach the semi-state meet multiple times.
“I knew she was 10th, based on runners coming in,” Wyant said. “Her and (older sister) Maddie walked away at the end of the race, and I’d told their mom, ‘She was No. 10.’ Mom said, ‘We’re not going to tell her.’ So I think Mom and Dad knew, but not her. And it was a good surprise for Tess.”