When Aurora Bonner moved to Valparaiso from South Central two summers ago, the girl named after the Northern Lights needed a while to take a shine to her new school.
Like a year.
"It's a huge school compared to South Central," she said. "I got lost the first few days. I was really scared. I had new classes. They were a lot harder. My whole sophomore year, I felt like the new kid."
Largely for that reason, Bonner decided not to run cross country, which she had done the year before as a Satellite.
"We never had a (full) team with South Central," she said. "It was up to me to do it myself. Coming here, I knew it took a lot more dedication. I thought I would be overwhelmed. I knew I had a lot on my plate. I signed up for a lot of honors classes. Honestly, I'm glad I didn't do it."
Bonner ran track in the spring, her first interaction with the distance running group, many of whom were seniors, and coach Karen DeVries. She did better than expected, but still was on the fence regarding cross country for 2012.
"I'm very indecisive, but when I do decide to do something, I put my heart into it," she said. "I pretty much did every sport you can think of at South Central. Finally, my family said, 'Aurora, you're a runner, stick to it.'"
First-year Valpo coach Boomer Nellessen isn't involved in track, so he didn't know of Bonner until she came out.
"I really truly didn't know if she was going to continue to run or not," he said. "A lot was in flux. I didn't know what her expectations were. She ran at South Central, but she didn't run in a regional. She hadn't run in a semistate, any bigger meets."
Bonner's expectations were modest to start: just make varsity.
"Honestly, I came in like I was blind," she said. "I feel like a freshman sometimes, I'm so new at it. It was a lot more intense, more competitive. Obviously, I knew they were really good. At first, I thought it was way out of reach, but I wanted to break 20 minutes. I thought that would be exciting."
She's reached that mark numerous times, including at the New Prairie Regional, where Bonner finished eighth in 19:39.
"Our first meet, she was our third runner and I'm like, 'Wow!'" Nellessen said. "She just kept growing off that, getting more and more confidence in her ability. As she kept going, it was less and less of a surprise and more of, we need you to step up. We call her a freshman, but she doesn't run like a freshman or act like a freshman. She's really bought into the team concept. She realizes she doesn't have to do it on her own, which is exciting to see her take to heart."
On Saturday, she'll run in the state meet in Terre Haute, a mere pipe dream not that long ago.
"I feel like I'm at home because of cross country," Bonner said. "I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't done it. Cross country helped me fit in a lot more. I'm so much more relaxed. It's been a great season. The year couldn't go much better for me, not just cross country, but school. I've got a lot more friends and a good team to lean on. It's really been satisfying."