Problems  with her asthma and other medical issues dropped Hope Leman back in the pack after she qualified for the Class 2A state cross country meet as a freshman at  Deerfield,  then transferred to Evanston.

But Leman’s back in front now.

Leman charged to an 8th place finish at Saturday’s Lake Park Sectional meet and was the only ETHS runner, male or female, to punch a ticket to this weekend’s Illinois High School Association Class 3A state finals at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

Leman claimed the first individual qualifying spot in the field at Lake Park, clocked in 18 minutes, 05.8 seconds on a muddy course.  Teammate Gabrielle Horton missed out by one spot — and a mere 4 seconds — for Evanston.

Leman’s climb to the No. 1 position on an otherwise senior-dominated squad wasn’t entirely unexpected once the determined junior became 100 percent healthy. As a freshman, she was one of the front-runners for a Deerfield team that reached Peoria back in 2017.

She managed to earn the No. 7 position for the ETHS varsity in cross country as a sophomore, finishing 101st at the sectional meet, but a rough outdoor track season left her running future in doubt.

Now she’s back with the state’s elite runners for Saturday’s 3-mile test.

“Since her first race this year, I knew Hope would be in contention to qualify for State,” said Evanston head coach Rosette Ochoa. “She’s been so consistent for us all year long, and her performance at the conference meet was outstanding. She’s always been a determined runner, but now you can see it in her face just how determined she is. What a shift for her!

“She’s learned how to work through her (medical) issues and she’s very meticulous and detail-oriented when it comes to her workouts. I think her only disappointment is that our team didn’t qualify, because she always promotes team first and she didn’t want to go to State by herself.”

“I had a very rough season in track, and I was expecting a very tough cross country season, too,” Leman admitted. “But my doctor figured some things out at the end of the summer and I was shocked by how well I did in our time trials. It’s great to be feeling great at this point.

“I’ve had a pretty good season this year and I thought this (State trip) was achievable. I still think the race I ran at the conference was my best, but I felt pretty good Saturday. I didn’t think the conditions were too bad.”

Leman employed a relatively new strategy at the sectional, choosing to run with the top pack right from the start instead of lingering in the middle or back and then picking off opponents 1 by 1. Her time of 18 minutes plus didn’t challenge eventual champion (and defending state champion) Katelynne Hart of Glenbard West, who ruled the race in 16:34.6. But the Wildkit junior may have found a strategy that will serve her well moving forward in her cross country career.

And past experience will tell her that running in Peoria means a fast early pace where no runner wants to get buried in the pack.

“We kinda let Hope decide how she wanted to run the race,” said Ochoa. “She’s taken different approaches throughout the season. I think she’s good at  going out strong and then hanging on — but that does hurt. Hope is a fighter and she’s really able to sustain things for most of the race.

“At the sectional, she just trusted herself. The first mile wasn’t that fast because of the sloppy course and at the 2 mile she was still in a pack of 5 or 6 girls at the front.”

“Early in the season I’d start slow, then pick it up, and that worked pretty well,” Leman said. “But in the conference meet I took it out and I was able to hang on. So after that race I felt like my best guarantee to make it to State was to take it out strong and try to maintain.

“At the sectional, after the second mile hit us the (top) group started to move up. I was close, but out of the pack then. It was so great to get all of those congratulations and high fives when I crossed the finish line.”

Leman’s performance was even more impressive because she skipped regional competition to re-take the ACT exam in an effort to improve her test scores. She beat the Niles West regional champion, Loyola Academy freshman Ellie Grammas, by 5 full seconds at the sectional.

As a team, Evanston placed 8th in the 13-team field with 207 points. Glenbard West took the sectional team title with 53 points.

Horton’s near-miss found the senior standout placing 35th in 19:21.3. Next best for Evanston were freshman Ella Gutierrez, 52nd in 19:53.4; senior Ciara Connell, 55th in 19:56.4; senior Jadyn Denlow, 57th in 20 minutes flat; senior Hannah Lipman, 66th in 20:16.3; and senior Eavan Norman, 72nd in 20:27.3.

“Gabby ran a great race and the others ran well, too. I’m proud of all of them,” Ochoa praised. “I know the times weren’t what they wanted because of the conditions — they all wanted PRs (personal records) — but they all ran well.”

On the boys side, the Kits finished 13th with a team score of 392. The team’s No. 1 runner, Max Peterson, faltered in his bid to return to State and didn’t finish the 3-mile race after running with the leaders for the first 2 miles of what turned out to be his final postseason test.

Peterson placed 35th at State last year and had his sights set on a possible All-State finish (top 25 placers) as a senior.

“With about a mile and a quarter to go Max fell on his hands and knees from exhaustion, and at that point he was being passed up by a ton of guys,” said Evanston coach Don Michelin Jr. “He just got slower and slower at that point. The pace changed quickly on him. He wasn’t injured and his respiration was fine after the race. I believe he just ran out of gas.”

Without their No. 1 runner to provide points, the Wildkits couldn’t mount a serious challenge for one of the team qualifying berths. York (40 points), Wheaton Warrenville South (62), New Trier (79), Maine South (98) and Wheaton North (164) all advanced full teams to Peoria.

Senior Jack Rutstein was Evanston’s first finisher, 58th in 16:27.9. Following in order for the Kits were junior Ellis Allen, 68th in 16:44.4; sophomore Sam Bennett, 78th in 16:52.9; sophomore Solomon Green, 93rd in 17:17.4; and senior Giacomo Conde, 95th in 17:19.1.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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