HAMMOND | Squirrels darted in the background, geese honked in the distance and dogs scratched and sniffed along the course.
Then an animal won the girls race at the Gavit Sectional Tuesday at Riverside Park.
Undefeated in sixth, seventh and eighth grade at Kahler Middle School, Lake Central freshman phenom Sarah Hunsley, described by her coach as “an animal,” took a few races to acclimate herself to competition at the varsity level and in the Duneland Athletic Conference.
Now that it’s the postseason, Hunsley is ready for new courses and new accomplishments, such as her individual championship, which contributed to her team’s 10th consecutive and 20th overall championship, Tuesday.
Hunsley pushed through rain to win in 19:52.
“Going against all of these kids that are so much older than me, it’s like overwhelming, but once you know what you’re doing and how you are with your team, it’s easier to break the nerves,” Hunsley said.
“I’m very proud of my team, and our goal is to get to state because we didn’t go last year. We’re mentally tough enough to go to state.”
The first L.C. freshman to win the sectional since Megan Plenus in 2006, Hunsley credited runner-up and team leader Megan Zajac for pushing her throughout the season in practice and in Tuesday’s race, though Zajac was 22 seconds back in second.
The Indians had seven of the top 10 runners, including Jade Tazbir (third) and Sydney Vandersteeg (fourth), to dominate the meet.
“They did a great job,” L.C. coach Ann Downey said. "We ran as a team. They practiced hard. The kids are definitely a tight group of girls. Everyone is pulling for each other. They had a job to do, and they all went out and did their job.”
Lake Central almost swept the sectional in both genders, but Munster’s boys, led by a 1-2 finish, held off the Indians 30-33 for the ninth sectional title in school history and second in a row.
“It doesn’t matter what the two teams are like coming in, they’ll always give you a good challenge,” Munster coach Aaron Brown said. “L.C. took the bull by the horns -- or the Mustangs by the reins, I guess we could say -- and controlled that whole race.
"If we run the same race and Lake Central runs the same race on Saturday, we won’t beat them.”
Ryan Kritzer, last year’s runner-up, beat teammate Tom Bolanowski, last year’s champ, for the individual title, coming home in 16:12. Mustangs Scott Farley, Jimmy Murphy and Theo Burgwald were eighth, ninth and 10th, respectively, ahead of a trio of Indians who were 12th through 14th.
Kritzer passed race leader Sal Cordova of Bishop Noll near the 2,000-meter mark.
“I’ve been feeling really good this whole year and haven’t had any setbacks,” Kritzer said. “I’ve just been able to keep working hard all season, and now it’s paying off in the postseason.”
Lake Central’s Zach Hupp came in ahead of Cordova for third and was joined by fellow super-sophomores Tyler Kramer-Stephens, Casey Garvey and Kameron Konopasek.