WHITING | First off, it’s Citlali. C-I-T-L-A-L-I.
Google her results under ‘Citali’ or other erroneous takes on the name. Either way, the name Lopez from Whiting is near the top of the listed finishers.
Those close to Citlali Lopez just call her CiCi, but now she has a new moniker: the first semistate qualifier in Whiting cross country history.
The local face of a new rule that allows more individuals from non-qualifying teams to earn a trip to the next level, Lopez has had her sights set on a big finish since learning that her senior year would be the first time the previous also-rans from outside the big programs would have a crack at big-time advancement.
The old rule dictated that the top five teams and top 10 individuals advanced, and usually those 10 individuals tended to be from the teams that advanced as well.
“When I heard about (the rule change), I was like, ‘Nice. I can leave a mark and have all my teammates look up to me and give them motivation to make it to semistate or state,’” Lopez said. “I was like, ‘Now is my chance to go far.’”
Whiting has had a middling cross country program for at least the past decade, but the school most often doesn’t field a track team.
This season, however, has been huge with more than 30 runners across the boys and girls cross country teams. Lopez’s success is the product of her own hard work but also a deep, close team and the presence of some talented boys such as Damien Resa and Mark Casanova, who paced and pushed Lopez during workouts.
“It was truly amazing,” first-year Oilers coach Allison Buell said. “And most of all of those kids are still practicing until CiCi finishes. They are truly a team.”
Under the old rules, Lopez’s season would have ended with her 11th-place finish (21:12) at the Gavit Sectional. She was 20th overall in 21:01 at the Crown Point Regional last Saturday and now has a shot of getting out of today's New Prairie Semistate.
“This is the only chance I have, so I have to just go for it,” Lopez said. “Even though I’m going to be in pain, I have to fight through it no matter what. It’s not an easy course. There are hills. Every runner is going to be in pain going up those hills.”
The fact that Lopez is charging toward the front of the pack late in the season is fitting, given that she often sits in the 40s or 50s in terms of place after the first mile of every 5K she runs. She picks off runners after that, like she did last Saturday in her first run at Lemon Lake County Park.
“She gets stronger and stronger,” Buell said. “That is amazing to me. She has not had one bad race this year. She is consistent. I never had to worry about her. I knew she'd be in the lead pack at the end.”
Lopez was sixth at the Andrean, Gavit and Highland invites and third at the Greater South Shore Conference meet. Her time of 20:47 at Highland was a personal best.
The humble senior is only in her third year of cross country. She has played basketball since seventh grade, and she was a second team Times All-Area pick a year ago after leading the area in steals.
“Coach (Kevin) Moynihan was like, ‘You’re a good runner, why not join cross country?’ and I thought, ‘OK, it’s not that hard,’” Lopez said. “Then after the first practice I said, ‘My God, what did I get into?’
“I worked for it, and at the end I proved to everyone that what you work for, you can accomplish.”