TERRE HAUTE – The code word was "pepper."
Before the state championship on Saturday afternoon, Bishop Dwenger senior Erin Strzelecki and her teammates agreed they would yell out "pepper" on the final straightaway at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course if there was another runner close enough to catch her at the finish.
"They didn't say it, so I was really confident going into that home stretch, that this is it, this is where I am going to take it," said Strzelecki, who won the individual title, the first for a Bishop Dwenger Saint, in 17 minutes, 22.9 seconds. "I was open to the changes throughout the race, because anything can happen. Anyone can come up behind you and pass you, so just going into that home stretch, I was just sprinting as fast as I could, through all the pain, through all the wind. And it was hurting a little bit, but it was worth it."
The Carroll girls team also brought a title home to Fort Wayne, defending their state championship from 2018 with a team score of 101 points, beating out Zionsville with 143 points. Homestead was ninth with 287 points and Concordia was 14th with 338.
Annalyssa Crain, a junior from Edgewood, took an early lead while Strzelecki settled in behind her. Halfway through the race, the senior pulled even, then pulled ahead. By the time she rounded the final turn, her lead had grown to 20 seconds.
"My coach and I had talked about how there might be someone who's going to push the pace, and if it's not you that's fine," Strzelecki said. "I was just listening to my coach – he's very loud, so I could hear him – and my teammates. They were pushing me to go faster, but consistently go faster, and not sprint to get to Annalyssa Crain, because she was pushing the pace and that was amazing. She did a lot of the work for me, and I really thank her for that."
Carroll junior Zoe Duffus was the top finisher for the state champion Chargers, finishing sixth in 18:17.0. Her teammate Monroe Rayna Fruchey was 19th at 18:43.1.
"I think we had a nice, solid race: Our front runners ran the way they needed to, Zoe ran a good race and Rayna was right there," Carroll coach Phil Yoder said. "Ashlyn (Minton) ran the best race I've ever seen her run, Mallory (Clements) had her best state meet. ... Overall, top to bottom, I think we had a good day."
The Chargers had to wait until the winner was announced at the awards ceremony to know for sure that they had claimed their second state title.
"The key was not to get out too fast, because on this course you can get out too fast and it really hurts you," Yoder said. "I think we did a great job of being poised early on and moving throughout, so I'm very proud of them for that."
Sophomore Addison Wiley of Huntington North placed 10th in her first season running cross country, and Homestead senior Julia Dvorak passed Concordia senior Ellie Cates at the finish line to place 12th. Freshman Lydia Bennett of DeKalb was right behind in 14th and junior Sarah Busch of Bishop Luers was 17th.
"I honestly was a little sad, just because it is my last race," Cates said when asked how she felt before the race. "I was a little nervous, but I just wanted to try to stay calm and enjoy every moment."