PAXTON – With five freshmen among his top seven runners, St. Joseph-Ogden girls' cross-country coach Jon Jamison has learned "there's always some uncertainty."
And with good reason.
"It's hard to know how they'll adapt going from 2 miles (in middle school) to 3 miles (in high school)."
It's also difficult to speculate how they'll perform from one meet to the next.
The Spartans coach had those anxious feelings prior to Saturday's Class 1A sectional cross-country meet at Paxton-Buckley-Loda.
Turns out, he had plenty of reasons to be positive after the sectional race concluded.
SJ-O won its fourth sectional team championship in school history and the first since 2000, overpowering runner-up Teutopolis by 41 points. SJ-O's score was 78 points.
Spartans Hannah Hogan, a senior, and Sidney Long, a freshman, placed fourth and fifth, respectively, one second apart to spearhead the effort. Hogan's time was 18 minutes, 53 seconds.
His squad is ranked sixth in 1A, and Jamison said his expectations have risen as the season has progressed.
"It didn't start to hit me until after the Spartan Classic (on Sept. 22) how good we could be," Jamison said. "I knew then we could be a state-qualifying team."
While Hogan and Long ran together, the team's next three runners were competitive with each other. Freshman Suzanne Ford, senior Amber Stierwalt and freshman Amanda Holmes were timed within 17 seconds of one another and placed between 22nd and 31st in the 130-runner field.
"All seven of our runners have come on strong the last two weeks," Jamison said.
Regional runner-up Urbana University High (ranked seventh in the state) was the other area team to move on to state. The Illineks placed third at the sectional with 127 points, beating Beecher by one point.
Uni's leader was senior Michelle Mehnert, who trailed only Tri-Valley's Stephanie Brown in the battle for individual honors. Mehnert's time was 18:40.
She was pleased to see the recent temperature drops.
"I enjoy any adversity Mother Nature throws at me," Mehnert said. "It's more motivating than running on a nice, sunny day."
Mehnert, who tapered little for sectional, posted her best time of the year by 37 seconds.
Individually, St. Thomas More's Cara Feeney was third (18:52) and will be joined at state by two Hoopeston Area teammates as well as Bismarck-Henning's Abby Albers, who placed 12th (20:02) and secured the last advancing spot by five seconds.
The Cornjerkers who continued their seasons were Erika Ramos (seventh in 19:13) and Belinda Cohen (11th in 19:58).
Feeney called her race "one of my best." She passed two runners in the final 50 meters and said, "I got in the mode."
Like Mehnert, she was happy to not have to run in warmer temperatures.
"It always helps me to run in the cold," said Feeney, who cut 28 seconds off her season's best time. "It's a mental thing. The whole season, you run in hot weather and when that changes, a change takes place in my running."
Hoopeston Area finished seventh. Coach Rich Stipp said he thought qualifying for state as a team would be a long shot.
"In order for us to advance in a meet of this caliber (four of the state's top 13 ranked teams were in the field), we would have almost needed a PR from everyone and to have everything fall in line," he said.
In fact, Cohen was one second away from her PR, and Emily Warner (58th in 21:52) achieved a personal-best time by nearly 40 seconds.