As York senior Emma Fisher prepared for the upcoming girls cross country season, she accepted another responsibility.
While Fisher hoped to improve upon her 2011 12th-place finish at the Class 3A state meet, she also would try to help the Dukes improve collectively after graduating five of seven runners from their state lineup.
“I talked to Emma in the summer and said ‘I’m going to ask you to slow down in practice and run with the girls, stay with them and gradually get them up to speed,’ ” York coach Annette Schulte said.
“I was almost asking her to sacrifice her ability. She was nervous about it, and I was worried to ask her to do it. We worked on our pace, and we did it. It's great when you have someone so selfless like that. She gave a lot to those girls of herself, and it comes back to reward her.”
By the end of this season, few girls in the state could keep up with Fisher.
When she returned to the 3A state meet Saturday at Peoria’s Detweiller Park, she ran the second-fastest girls time ever on the 3.0-mile course.
Fisher ran a blazing 16:15, which broke the previous course record of 16:21 and, according to national results posted on various websites, is the No. 4 best time this season in the United States.
The only disappointment was Fisher finished second because Glenbard West junior Madeline Perez won the race with an even more amazing 16:02.
Fisher was asked if somebody told her before the race that she’d run that time -- 57 seconds faster than her 2011 state time.
“I’d be like, ‘Sweet,’ " Fisher said. "I think I broke the course record, but it didn’t set the new one. But I’m still happy about that.
“I dropped (33) seconds from my previous best so that was exciting. I was kind of amazed. I’m happy for (Perez), and it’s kind of cool because we’ve raced each other the past five weeks.”
York also did some amazing things as a team. All seven runners achieved personal records as the Dukes finished 14th (315 points) in the 25-team field, just 11 points from 11th-place Hinsdale Central (304).
Senior Katherine Schlemmel (81st, 17:56) joined a select few York runners to break the 18:00-barrier at Detweiller, followed by junior Caitlin Blum (100th, 18:06), senior Kristen O’Malley (106th, 18:13), sophomore Hannah Wahlgren (132nd, 18:27), freshman Elizabeth Hagstrom (161st, 18;47) and sophomore Dayle Mueller (163rd, 18:48). Other members of the postseason roster were juniors Alyssa Adam, Kathryn Hagstrom and Allison Smith and sophomores Maddie Fabry and Erica Hackett.
“It was really rewarding because every single one of the girls had a personal record, and they’re all crying and laughing and celebrating. You’re always happy for the girls when they’re happy at the end of the season,” Schulte said. “I think Emma was happier about that than her own performance. She’s just the most wonderful kid ever.
“We’re happy (with Fisher). I know she’s really happy. I was hoping she might be able to go in the 17:30s, and she proved us all wrong, which was great. And Madeline Perez, what an incredible time."
New Trier senior Courtney Ackerman (16:27) and Lake Park senior Kaylee Flanagan (16:39) finished third and fourth after being fourth and third, respectively, in the 2011 state race behind two seniors. Three sophomores were fifth through seventh, Fenwick’s Olivia Ryan (16:43), Glenbard West’s Lisa Luczak (16:45) and Jacobs’ Lauren Van Vierberge (16:47).
The top six finishers at state raced against each other at the Niles West Sectional Oct. 27 and five of them, other than Ackerman, were together at the Lake Park Regional Oct. 20. For Fisher and Perez, it was their fifth consecutive week competing against each other.
In the teams’ dual meet Oct. 4, Fisher beat Perez by about 20 seconds and followed that by winning her second consecutive West Suburban Conference Silver Division title Oct. 13, beating Perez by 9.1 seconds.
After battling a sinus, upper respiratory and ear infection for a month, Perez gained strength and momentum for the postseason. Perez won the regional by 20.5 seconds and the sectional by 23.23 seconds with Fisher taking second both races.
“They just pushed each other over the last month and helped each other get better,” Schulte said. “Emma beat Madeline a couple of times and that gave her a lot of confidence, and then Madeline came back and it gave her confidence. I think they’ve been good for each other.”
Perez and Fisher dusted the all-time state finals record time of 16:22 set by Woodstock’s Kayla Beattie in the 2010 2A race as well as the 3A finals record of 16:24 that gave graduated Amanda Fox of Naperville Central last year’s championship.
After the four frontrunners Saturday took out the first mile in 5:13, Perez began to gain a slight lead during the second mile for a personal-best split of 10:36, 14 seconds faster than in September, to open a gap on Ackerman. Fisher was a few strides behind Ackerman before eventually passing her.
“PRing is always exciting, setting new personal records,” Fisher said. “I wanted to be all-state definitely. I just like to see what more I can do.”
With this all-state, top-25 finish, Fisher becomes just the second runner to achieve all-state honors at least three times for a York program that won the 2000 Class AA title and owns seven top-three state team trophies. Fisher was 24th in 2010 (17:15) and did not run at state as a freshman, serving as one of the alternates for the Dukes’ seventh-place state team.
The only York runner with more all-state honors is 1987 graduate and four-time all-stater Mary Beth Driscoll, the 1983 state champion (11:26.4) when the meet was one class and the race distance was 2.1 miles. York's Maria Cicero won the 2000 Class AA title as a senior in a then state-finals record 13:49 for 2.5 miles. The girls state meet became 3.0 miles in 2002.
Nationally, Perez reportedly is No. 2 to the 16:00 run by Simi Valley (Calif.) junior Sarah Baxter at the Mount San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) Invitational Oct. 20, breaking the course record by 16 seconds. The only other faster reported time than Fisher is Baxter’s 16:12 at the Woodridge Classic Sept. 14.
Fisher’s 5:25 mile pace Saturday was five seconds faster than Cicero’s state championship pace. When Fisher passed the 2.0-mile mark in 10:44, eight seconds behind Perez, she was roughly half a minute faster than Driscoll’s title run.
“That’s some pretty good company,” Schulte said. “It was kind of funny. When I saw Emma at the finish, her hands were on her hips and even as she walked away, she didn’t even look like she was spent.”
The rest of the Dukes also put up times that rivaled strong runners of the recent past. Optimal weather and course conditions certainly helped as well as the continually improving competition.
Schlemmel became just one of a handful of York runners to break 18:00 at Detweiller and actually finished in a better time than one of York’s eight individual all-state performances since 2004.
Schlemmel and Wahlgren both earned all-conference honors with top-16 finishes at the Silver Meet and remained the team’s No. 2-3 runners throughout the postseason. Elizabeth Hagstrom joined the lineup at state and dropped another 30 seconds Saturday after running her previous best of 19:22 in a time trial at sectionals. Mueller, the only other returnee from last year’s state lineup to compete Saturday, ran one second faster than 2011, when she was 133rd as the team’s No. 6 finisher.
“It’s a lot of credit to how much (our girls) improved and worked,” Schulte said. “It makes coaching worthwhile. They sacrificed a lot, and we worked them hard. It’s really a tribute to the girls.”
The Dukes had big shoes to fill from last year’s eighth-place state team (244 points). They graduated three runners who competed at state all four years and now are competing for NCAA Division I programs – 2011 all-stater Kayla Spencer (Marquette), Shari Lund (Purdue) and Michelle Frigo (Illinois) – as well as two-time state competitor Lizzy Field.
It was a gradual progression of gaining confidence, stamina and speed.
“I think (the key) was the pacework we did in the summer, gradually getting there with tempo paces. We knew what the (past) girls were running and it took a while to get there,” Schulte said. “The numbers don’t lie, and we said, ‘You’re doing the same times and pace that (previous girls) did. They’ve held those girls in such high esteem and thinking that they’d never be that good so it’s took some convincing. And they were rested (for state), too.
“There was a big gap in times (after last year) and the girls just stepped up. Emma was very instrumental in encouraging them and when they were running with her, they were gaining confidence. She held herself back, but not for long.”
Fisher excels on many levels. She’s a great student, a National Merit finalist and a second-chair flutist.
“She's smart, athletic, musically talented, a complete team person. Everyone on the team just loves her. She’s so sweet,” Schulte said.
As she received congratulations for her all-state finish and her impressive time, Fisher was excited that she could share the smiles and joy with her teammates.
Her support also extended to family and friends, who delivered personal notes to help her prepare for her final state meet.
“I opened them last night and this morning and those were really touching. I’ll remember those,” Fisher said.
“It’s just crazy being a senior and it’s my last state meet. I’m glad that I made the most of it and I didn’t waste the opportunity. I think it’s amazing that every single person from our team PRed today. It was just a great way to end it for us. I’ll just remember the team spirit and how excited my coaches were for all of us.”