KEARNEY —When asked what it felt like to be a state champion, Hastings High runner Chelsey Espinosa was almost rendered speechless.
“Uh, I don’t know,” the junior said after winning the Class C girls race of the Nebraska High School Cross Country Championships at the Kearney Country Club Friday.
“We prepared for this, our team,” Espinosa said. “That’s all it is. It’s just preparation, hard work. That’s what we did.”
Espinosa finished the race in a time of 19 minutes 33 seconds, coming in eight seconds ahead of second place Tukker Romey of Gering.
“I didn’t think of it as a possibility even today,” Espinosa said when asked if she thought she’d have a chance to win prior to the race. “I just kind of ran. I just wanted to get a good run in, be competitive.”
Espinosa came into the race after a strong season finishing first at several meets including the UNK Invitational earlier in the season, something she said gave her knowledge for the championship.
“It gave me a good look at the girls, where they’re at, pretty much an overall look,” she said.
The biggest difference Espinosa said isn’t the number of runners or the weather, but the atmosphere.
“At the state meet you’ve got 10x more people just crowding around and yelling at you to go and at the UNK meet you have that but just not as much,” she said.
Espinosa’s win was the first for a Lady Tiger since Shona Jones took the title in the Class A race in 1985.
And interestingly enough, Hastings High coach Scott Rosno said Jones played a role in Espinosa’s success Friday.
“The neat thing is when Chelsey wasn’t sure she wanted to do high school cross, I think Shona Jones, Shona Smith now, talked to her parents and advised her it would be a great thing to do,” Rosno said, “and good for Shona because Chelsey is carrying that torch well.”
Espinosa was part of the six-member team competing for Hastings High and she said having her team there was part of the key to her success.
“At the end of the day, I want them to know they helped me be a state champion and it wasn’t just me,” she said of her team. “It was them always pushing me at practice wanting me to go faster, further, just be a better runner in general for them.
“I don’t think people appreciate enough the team they’ve got and the people there. I would divide the metal into six pieces and they would each get a part of it because they are a part of it.”
Espinosa was the second Hastings girl to take home a first place medal Friday after St. Cecilia freshman Alayna Vargas ran a 19:15.6, who defeated three-time state champion Rylee Rice of Ainsworth with a time of 19:47.4.
Espinosa said she and Vargas competed against each other in Aurora this season with Vargas taking the win.
“It went really well for her. I was behind her,” Espinosa said. “She got the best of me. She’s a good runner.”
The top finisher for the fourth place Hastings High boys team was Jaydon Welsh, who finished in sixth, one position up from a year ago.
“Last year I got seventh and I wanted to do better than last year,” he said.
Welsh was running at a high of fourth place but was passed at the finish line after a jostle losing two spots finishing with a time of 16 minutes 40.26 seconds.
“(It was my) best race of the year by far,” Welsh said. “ I ran a flatter course way faster but this is a tougher course.”
In terms of preparation, Welsh said the team runs at Brickyard Park once or twice a week. For him the real mental preparation comes in the hours before the competition.
“Meet day, pre-meet don’t mess around. You focus on what you want to do, your goals,” he said. “No messing around. Some people do but not me.”
Welsh’s sixth place finish led the boys team to a fourth place finish overall coming in behind Omaha Skutt Catholic, Lexington and Seward.
Rosno said he was proud of have both the boys and girls teams competing at the state level.
“You start to confuse yourself into thinking it always happens that way and it doesn’t,” he said. “You have to realize the effort both groups put in for each other.”
Rosno said Espinosa had a lot of pressure on the girls team and handled it well with the rest of the team complimenting her well.
“On the boys side, Jaydon stuck his head in there and mixed some things up. I thought Landon Eckhardt got aggressive early and tried to compete and then it kind of tired down and finished back a little bit and then Johnny Lopez and Aaron Ochsner kept on going.
“It’s neat for the kids to have been able to compete here and then to run for each other. Even if it’s a bummer moment, a day or two or three later you’ll realize the exciting opportunity you go to have. Great day to be a Tiger.”
1, Chelsey Espinosa 19:33.3; 33, Mary Ferrone, 21:43.8; 53, Jessie Nguyen, 22:15.8; 54, Gilliyan Hueske, 22:16.2; 55, Hayden Weiss, 22:17.2; 62, Lilliana Widhelm, 22:30.9
6, Jaydon Welsh, 16:40.26; 20, Jonathan Lopez Chojolan, 17:22.70; 30, Landon Eckhardt, 17:34.97; 31, Aaron Ochsner, 17:39.71; 51, Tyler Sanderson, 18:17.51; 61, Kevin Vuong, 18:27.71