New to the local high school cross country scene, Newman freshman Karlie Hey is joining it all at quite a impressive time.
Pick a story line, any story line, for Saturday’s IHSA State Meet.
Can Sterling senior Jake Gebhardt close out his career with a 2A state title? Can the Newman boys continue a 5-year streak of top 15 finishes in 1A? Can retiring Bureau Valley coach Dale Donner’s lone runner, Haley Weidner, go out on a high note? How will a Rock Falls girls squad of entirely underclassmen set the tone for future 1A state meets?
In fact, among Hey and runners from Amboy, Dixon, Oregon and Rock Falls, 18 of the 24 local girls running at the State Meet at Peoria’s Detweiller Park are underclassmen.
Unlike the others, Hey didn’t run cross country last year as an eighth-grader.
Heck, 3 years ago, she didn’t even like running at all.
“As I got older, I thought I might try it,” Hey said. “I did distance [in track] and I like it a lot.”
In her first year in cross country at Rock Falls Middle School, as a seventh-grader, Hey placed 60th in the IESA 2A State Meet with a 2-mile time of 12 minutes, 42.4 seconds. She transferred to St. Andrew school in Rock Falls for her eighth-grade year and didn’t quite know where she would fit in with the Sauk Valley Saints co-op. However, being a part of the track program gave her a little more confidence in her distance running.
In such a short span, Hey has found out just how much her running talent has paid off. The reigning Three Rivers champion, Hey has added on third-place finishes at the regional and sectional races. In both of those races, she came behind Rock Falls’ sophomore duo of Bailee Fortney and Alex Gomez.
“I didn’t expect to be this close from where I was in the beginning of the year,” Hey said. “Just how practices were and how I kept up with it, I knew that I wouldn’t be the same as I was in the beginning of the year. I’d progress, but I didn’t think I’d progress this much.”
Hey finished in fifth place in her high school debut in late August at the Rocket Run at Centennial Park. Her finish, which was 32 seconds behind race winner Fortney, impressed Comets coach Pat Warkins a lot.
“That first meet, I didn’t think she really knew what to expect,” Warkins said. “She kind of surprised me, even though she did middle school track with St. Andrew. You could kind of tell that she was tenacious.”
After that first meet, Hey knew she had found her eventual targets. She raced against the Rock Falls girls three more times in the regular season, at Oregon, at the Twin City meet, and at Bureau Valley; as well as in both the regional and sectional. Hey’s sectional finish in 19:10 closed the interval on the Rockets’ sophomores to 16 seconds; and that came after running a personal-best 18:54 at the regional at Centennial Park.
“I really enjoy running with Rock Falls,” Hey said. “As the season’s got on, I’ve got closer to them. I feel like I’ve accomplished more because, practice-wise, I push myself more, and I think it would be better that way.”
Hey clearly became Newman’s top girl early on, and Warkins decided about a month ago that the best way to help her improve over the season was to have her run with the boys’ squad during practice. Hey would be good enough to be the sixth runner on the boys’ team, something that’s given the seventh boy, Lucas Velazquez, something to shoot for.
“To me, she’s really been surprising,” Warkins said. “She’s willing to do the work and put the work in. Ever since I had her start running with the boys, it’s helped her quite a bit. She’s learned at a little bit better pace, and knows she can push herself a little bit harder.”
“I like it a lot better,” Hey said, “because they kind of run a little faster, and for me, it’s better competition because it helps me with my meets.”
One of Hey’s preseason goals was to “try” to get to the sectional meet and “possibly” make it to state. Done, and done. She is hoping to shave off 15 seconds or so from her PR on the same Detweiler Park course she ran 3 weeks ago in the Peoria Heights Invitational. In that race, which was marred with rain, she escaped puddles and ran along with the boys in an open-style race.
“I hope that I do my best, as I have all year,” Hey said, “hopefully get around the Rock Falls girls, and just to have a better experience with it. I’m only a freshman, and hopefully it will be pretty good. I just hope for the best.”