As she entered the homestretch out front, Ella Behling used some mental imagery to finish strong.
The Chi-Hi sophomore cruised to an individual victory in the girls race to lead a Cardinal sweep for the top spots on Thursday at the Chi-Hi cross country invitational at Lake Wissota Golf Course.
Behling won the race in 19 minutes, 53.6 seconds, more than 16 seconds in front of teammate Haley Mason. Behling finished 57th at last year’s Division 1 girls state cross country championships and has carried that momentum over into her sophomore season.
Cooler temperatures helped her maintain speed throughout the course as she had more in the tank for a strong closing 800 meters for the win.
“This was a really fun race, too,” Behling said. “I feel like it was different with it being colder. I feel like it felt better.”
Behling is an experienced 800 runner — advancing to the Division 1 state track and field championships in the event this spring — but also visualized one of the top Big Rivers Conference runners in her sights in an effort to finish well.
“At the end, my mom goes, ‘catch Rachel Ball,’ and I go ‘she’s that (lead) cart, I’ve got to follow her,’” Behling said.
Hudson’s Ball is the reigning conference champion and finished 13th at last season’s Division 1 cross country championships. Behling admitted running by herself early in the season was tough to adjust to. Last year, then senior Katie Faris, was often step-for-step with Behling on the course but as the season has gone on, she’s become more comfortable finding ways to keep pace when running solo.
“It used to be really hard to do that,” Behling said. “I couldn’t do it at because I was used to chasing Katie (Faris) but this year I feel like it’s gotten a lot easier to tell myself they’re in front of you, you’ve got to go get them.”
The Cardinal girls earned five of the top-six spots in the standings at the four-team event with Mason in second, Tess Pitsch finishing third, Gabrielle Sweitzer taking fourth and Hannah Sillman coming home sixth as Chi-Hi cruised to the team title with 16 points.
“That was really exciting,” Behling said of the strong team finish. “I’m hoping to see that same thing at sectionals, seeing all our girls working together as a group.”
The Chi-Hi boys were also easy to find at the front as Ryan Beranek and Benjamin Lemay finished 1-2. The freshman Beranek won with a time of 18:18.4, while Lemay was second in 18:25.4.
“I was just looking to drop time,” Beranek said.
The freshman did just that, dropping 30 seconds from his previous best time, a performance he credited to getting out to a quick start.
Christian Aronsen finished 10th, Noah Graffunder took 13th and Noah McGivern came home 17th for the Cardinals as they finished second in the team standings with 41 points. Eau Claire Memorial took home the boys team championship with 34 points.
“Both our girls and guys dropped time today,” Chi-Hi coach Roger Skifstad said. “Our girls are probably moving up a bit further up in the conference race because we have a few front runners in Mason and Behling. Our depth is starting to show.”
Thursday’s event in cooler conditions also gave the team a more accurate gauge on how conditions could be when the Cardinals host the Big Rivers Conference Championships back at Lake Wissota Golf Course on Saturday, Oct. 13. Chi-Hi has two more events before then, competing at Tomah next Tuesday and at the Eau Claire Memorial invite at South Middle School in Eau Claire on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Skifstad said the team is coming off some hard practices prior to Thursday’s performance and will take it a little easier before ramping up again entering the postseason.
“We have some kids that have the potential to go to state,” Skifstad said. “I think we all came away today healthy. We had a couple kids that didn’t run today because they were sick. Nothing wrong at the end of this meet.”