Hope Leman had to miss the team banquet held by the Evanston Township High School marching band over the weekend.

But it’s a tradeoff that the ETHS junior probably wouldn’t mind making next year, too.

Leman turned in one of the best state final performances in the history of the Evanston girls cross country program Saturday, finishing 27th overall at the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state meet held at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

Leman just missed — by 2 places — an All-State designation with her finish, but established a personal best time of 17 minutes, 22.11 seconds over the 3-mile test.

Only four Evanston runners — Enyaeva Michelin (2nd in 2017), Stephanie Goodrich (10th in 1991, 18th in 1990), Amy Simon (13th in 1980) and Kathy McCray (24th in 1979) — have placed higher since the state series was first initiated back in 1979.

Leman rose to the challenge of running with the state’s elite, including Glenbard West’s Katelynn Hart, who won her fourth straight individual state championship with a time of 16:05.81. The Evanston junior, who also made the trip to Peoria as a freshman competing for Deerfield, said she didn’t feel any pressure to perform at a higher level but turned in a time that was 28 seconds quicker than her previous personal best.

“This was an exciting meet for me, but I wasn’t really worried about my performance, I was just happy to be there,” Leman said. “I stayed relaxed and I felt really good. The weather was awesome! It had to be close to 50 degrees there and the course wasn’t muddy, either.

“The last 800 was really difficult because I felt like I was having trouble breathing, not an asthma attack exactly, but maybe the start of one. My muscles got tired, but I made it through.”

Leman opted to go out with the race leaders for the second week in a row, covering her first mile in about 5:30, a faster pace by almost 7 seconds than her previous best effort at the Central Suburban League South division championship meet.

Then she displayed her running maturity, finding an opponent to latch onto to help her carry a strong pace for the rest of the race.

Leman didn’t know the identity of the mystery runner — “all I know is that she was wearing an orange jersey” — but was able to follow through on her pre-race strategy to have the competition help her thrive.

“It was really exciting to have so many people (spectators) cheering and so many good runners to help you carry through,” she said. “I don’t know what my split was at 2 miles, but I moved up (in the pack) because the others took it out fast and I was able to pick some of them off. I found one person with an orange uniform and ran the rest of the race with her. It was super helpful for me to have someone else to hang onto, even though she did finish slightly ahead of me.

“I didn’t see the number (her final time) when I crossed the finish line, but throughout the race I thought I seemed to be on point to PR. I wasn’t shocked that I got it. I knew I was running well.”

Evanston head coach Rosette Ochoa wasn’t surprised to see her No. 1 runner finish on a high note, either.

“Hope loves racing, and she ran a really good race (Saturday),” said Ochoa. “I really thought she’d get into the top 25 and she was only a few places away from that (and automatic All-State designation). I knew the other girls would push her, and I thought she had more in her. I knew she hadn’t peaked yet.

“She’s definitely a talented runner, but when it came to racing we didn’t always see what we anticipated from her because of her health issues. Once that was taken care of, she really took off. She has fun, she enjoys the process when it comes to the training, and I’m really curious to see just how far she’ll go next year.

“If she was a senior, I’d be a little down about the fact that she missed out on All-State. But now that she’s experienced this race, she can come back next year and set her goal to get to All-State.”

Leman didn’t do any organized distance running prior to entering Deerfield as a freshman. She had a plan in place for her high school career, which also includes full participation with the marching band once she transferred to ETHS after her freshman year.

“I knew I wanted to run when I got to high school,” she recalled, “but I had heard my middle school didn’t have the best program, so I decided to wait and try some other activities, like show choir and musicals. I’m not really that talented, I just wanted to try some different things.

“I did run some 5Ks with my family when I was younger and my brother ran cross country as a freshman. I really enjoy running and it made my move to Evanston go a lot smoother because it was a great way for me to find a community in high school.”

Now she’s not just part of that community, she’s the leader of the pack.

Dennis Mahoney

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

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