ST. JOHN | At a recent intrasquad meet at Lake Central, Megan Zajac had already completed the team’s home course, but some of the less experienced of the 30-plus Indians on the roster were struggling to find a finishing gear.
Instinctively, as she had seen Shelby Carroll do when Carroll was a senior and Zajac was a freshman, Zajac ran out and got behind the last runner and ran alongside her and cheered her to the finish.
“I know I need to keep everyone mentally strong, so I ran back to make sure they all put everything they have out on the course,” Zajac said. “We’re basically a family, and you always help family out.”
Zajac said the underclassmen have made an impression on the upperclassmen and deserve encouragement and a sense of belonging. It’s evident during huddles, stretches and down time, Zajac is a captain and the leader of a proud team.
“That set a nice example for the other kids,” coach Ann Downey said. “They work as a group. They work for each other. They are there for the team.”
It wasn’t the first time Zajac, now a junior, employed a veteran’s tactic. Seeing her oldest sister Rachel run cross country on some state-qualifying teams spurred Megan to run at Clark Middle School. After eighth grade the fifth of six siblings decided to focus full-time on running.
“I would have been a soccer player if not for my sister Rachel,” Zajac said. “After seeing her success I started running more. My sisters (Sarah Zajac also ran for the Indians) have always been good mentors for me.
“It was always exciting being part of that atmosphere when they ran.”
Zajac and some of her cross country teammates still play indoor soccer in Dyer in the winter during the “offseason” between cross country and track.
Last spring Zajac went to the state track meet in the 400-meter dash and on the 1,600 relay team. She also ran on the 3,200 relay team.
Now for the second consecutive fall, Zajac wears the mantle of No. 1 runner at L.C., a team with nine straight sectional titles and eight regional wins in the last nine seasons.
The Indians know there is room for improvement after a season that culminated with an 11th-place finish at semistate that snapped a six-year string of state finals appearances. The Indians were fifth at the Duneland Athletic Conference race.
A rash of injuries and illnesses about three-quarters into the season created inconsistency before the stretch run, just as other teams were rounding into peak shape.
Zajac, in fact, was sick with bronchitis and missed the two races prior to the DAC meet. About a mile into the course at Lemon Lake Park for the DAC meet, Zajac fainted.
“I remember just falling back,” said Zajac, who was treated and alert within moments of the fall.
She missed another race before the Hammond Sectional, where she was third overall.
This summer the potential collegiate cross country and track recruit visited two camps and attended all summer practices. She went surfboarding during a family vacation in South Carolina.
One of the best summer practices was a scavenger hunt, where teams of five runners wearing backpacks had to run to destinations based on an initial clue and subsequent clues found at each destination. Zajac’s team collected all the clues first, of course.
“The goal this year is to stay strong as a team through the postseason and stay healthy and strong,” Zajac said. “People don’t understand that it’s not natural to push the body to the point that (runners) do. It’s really hard to push through the pain.”