DANVILLE – Hoopeston Area had no margin for error Tuesday as it tried to defend its crown in the Vermilion Valley Conference girls' cross-country meet.
Coach Rich Stipp's squad started with the minimum number of runners – five – to be scored as a team.
When Ashley Houmes twisted an ankle midway through the race at Kickapoo State Park, it could have been devastating for a team that ultimately had the top two placers in Erika Ramos and Belinda Cohen. If Houmes was unable to finish, Hoopeston would be unable to win.
Houmes, a senior, showed she had the heart of a champion – not letting the pain consume her – and the Cornjerkers prevailed.
"One thing about all these girls, they run hurt and they run sick," Stipp said. "They're dedicated."
Hoopeston Area had four All-County runners – a designation that went to the top 10 finishers – including two seniors. Ramos was the winner, running the 3-mile course in 19 minutes, 47 seconds.
Seniors Abby Newman and Emily Warner were sixth and ninth, respectively. Runner-up Cohen, a sophomore, finished in a personal-best 20:34. Warner (22:48) also had her fastest time.
"You think the first (championship) is sweet, but to repeat is more of a victory, especially for the three seniors," Stipp said. "To think of the history of Hoopeston cross-country, and to be a part of that, is awesome."
The times were somewhat unexpected because the Cornjerkers did not taper for the meet.
"We've been practicing super-hard, trying to focus on the sectionals (Oct. 27)," Stipp said. "We know there are a number of teams in our sectional better than us right now, but we're working hard to get there by then."
Andrea Martis of Salt Fork/Westville, the defending individual champion, battled the flu and placed third in 21:11. One teammate, Brynn Parr (10th), joined her as an All-County runner.
Other top 10 performers included Bismarck-Henning teammates Abby Albers (fourth) and Jessica Brito (eighth) along with Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac's Kassi Ziegler (fifth) and Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman's Mary McKee (seventh).
Bismarck-Henning was the team runner-up.
Justin Jones faced the expected challenger and emerged triumphant in the boys' division of the Vermilion Valley Conference meet.
Opening with a 5:10 first mile and following it with consecutive 5:31 splits, Jones ran away from the 44-runner field to win individual honors in 16:12.
His closest pursuer, G-RF/C's Cody Swick, finished the 3-mile race in 18:15.
O/A-P coach Tim Lee had a simple message for Jones before the starter's gun sounded.
"I've been telling him he was coasting earlier in the year and, if he has goals at state, he has to push himself," Lee said.
"He did a tremendous job today," Lee added. "I figured he'd be in the 16:20s."
Jones wasn't the only Comet who ran well. The team had eight of the first 13 finishers (including junior varsity runner Travis Denius, a freshman who was two seconds away from All-County honors) and captured team honors with 23 points. Runner-up G-RF/C had 35 points.
Jones said it wasn't difficult to keep up the pace, even after building a 24-second lead after a mile.
"I had plenty of family and team members around the course to tell me to keep going," Jones said.
Though he was pleased with his performance, Jones was equally ecstatic about the showing of teammates Austin Grey (fourth), Brendan Hafner (sixth), Zack Alvey (seventh) and Tyler Grey (eighth), who were All-County recipients.
"It's great to see the team members succeed and finish as well as they did," he said. "To see us pack up like that is just awesome."
Though Lee's team topped state-ranked Paxton-Buckley-Loda last week in a seven-school meet, neither he nor Jones is lobbying for the Comets to be accorded statewide recognition.
"We're thrilled we could compete with them, but we're not up to PBL's level yet," Lee said. "That (result) lets us know we're getting stronger as we build toward the end of the year, but we don't deserve to be ranked above them."
Other All-County runners besides the Comets' clan and Swick were G-RF/C's Joey McNulty (third), Salt Fork/Westville's Danny Lewis (fifth) and the meet's top two freshmen, Buffaloes Guthrie Gardener (ninth) and Jordan Owen (10th).