HIGHLAND | Tall, red-haired and usually positioned at the front of any race she’s in, Griffith senior Taylor Austin is recognizable from a distance.
It’s only when she pulls into the chute 50 yards ahead of the nearest competitor that further examination reveals a poignant, multi-colored tattoo on the back of her left shoulder.
The angel wings, the heart, the “143” representing the letters in “I love you” and the word “Daddy” are Austin’s tribute to her late father Jeff, who died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) when Taylor, the oldest of two, was 10.
“He’s just with me, always watching me,” Austin said.
After she turned 18 earlier this year, Austin began collecting tats, with one on each ankle and the homage to “Daddy” is with her on the good days and bad.
Saturday was a good one, as Austin shook off hail striking her in the head during stretches of the race and cruised to her first title in the 45th annual Highland Invitational.
“I just feel really good this year,” Austin said. “Everything is better with my hips. I’m just trying to consistently break 19 minutes now.”
Her bib number contained her single mom’s birth year, and she started in lucky lane No. 7 before finishing in 18:53, 34 seconds short of the course record, against an often-fierce wind. She avenged a 2011 loss here against rival Becca Conley from Andrean. Austin was fifth at Highland both her freshman and sophomore years. As the calendar turned to fall Saturday, Austin realized it’s the stretch run of her senior season.
“It’s just the right time of the year,” she said. “I’m just trying to improve myself and go out every day hitting the times I want.”
Conley was third in 19:30 and was almost hit by an impatient motorist as she crossed 41st Avenue in front of the school during the race.
Runner-up Kieran Casey of Perry Meridian led five Falcons in the top 20 and carried them to the team title.
Wheeler was second, and Highland, with all seven girls running season-bests, won a sixth-runner tiebreaker to place third ahead of Kankakee Valley.
“We had a real good week of practice, and since it’s our home course we wanted to do well,” Highland coach Ellie Belli said.
The Bearcats survived tests on the course and off, as their staging area tent blew over the fence and into the Highland baseball field.
“(The girls) had confidence and got it done today in tough conditions, so they should be really proud of themselves,” Wheeler boys coach and girls assistant Louie Guillen said. “The boys knew it would be a dogfight.”
Wheeler was the runner-up in both races, as Lowell took the boys team title behind a 1-2 finish by Kyle Eller and Brian Blaylock. Bearcats freshman Joel O’Shea was third.
After Eller, teammate Brian Blaylock was second, with Jeff Potat (13), Ethan Huseman (18) and Garrett Corning (26) rounding out the scoring.
Corning was 10 seconds ahead of the final Perry Meridian finisher to give the Devils the edge. Perry Meridian, Andrean and Highland rounded out the top five.
“I give God all the glory for all that I do,” Eller said. “I’m grateful for how things are going.”
Eller repeated as champ. He was second in the AAA race at New Prairie last week and has won invites at Andrean and Crown Point but missed the Bob Thomas Invite at his own school while taking the ACT.
“The goal is to keep training consistently until regionals and then taper a little and hopefully peak at state,” Eller said. “That wind takes a lot of you. You can’t breathe because it’s all going down your throat.”