The term “freshman phenom” gets tossed around rather loosely in March, but as May wanes and the state finals approach, the distinction is bestowed upon the few who’ve truly earned it.
They come to this point from different paths, and their confidence ballooned in various stages over the course of the season.
There’s the long jumper who turned heads all season and thrived with an older sister on the team. There’s the No. 2 high jumper who soared to the top of the region after a teammate’s injury. And there’s the shy sprinter who needed a last-minute boost to overcome the older, more seasoned runners to her left and her right in the starting blocks.
Kankakee Valley’s Jenna Jungels, Merrillville’s Alivia Ash and Bishop Noll’s Shana Cooper are all heading to Bloomington for the 40th annual girls state finals Saturday at Indiana University’s Robert C. Haugh Track and Field Complex.
They join a strong contingent of region hopefuls and want to ensure that the area will be well-represented downstate in the future.
“A lot of people didn’t expect this,” Merrillville’s Ash said. “A lot of my teachers didn’t expect it. People didn’t know I was good. They thought I was one of those girls who just came out just to have a sport to do.”
After No. 1 jumper A’Leah Scott broke a wrist at the DAC meet, Ash stepped up and won the sectional and the regional. She cleared 5 feet, 4 1/4 inches and had the fewest misses in claiming the regional title May 21.
“I just focused; I wanted to make it to state for my freshman year because I knew that was a good thing,” Ash said. “I didn’t focus on what anyone else was doing. I would just stare at the bar for like half an hour and try to get over it as high as I could and beat all the girls there.”
Ash is seeded eighth in a field of 29 girls.
“I’m just going to stay calm and collected and eat my Kit-Kat before the meet like I do every time,” Ash said. “I want to get 5-6. I really want a ring, and I’m going to try my best to get that.”
Ash already won a $5 bet with a detractor, and she’s taking a step toward joining the list of Merrillville greats such as her cousin Arielle Anderson, who holds the school’s 400-meter dash record.
“We knew coming in that she was talented in some ways,” Merrillville coach Jeff Fairbairn said. “She jumped 5-1 in middle school. She struggled earlier this year, but she’s worked at it and stuck to it and nonchalantly has performed pretty well here at the end.”
The same can be said of Cooper -- or, for that matter, Michigan City freshman Jasmine McLemore, who won the regional in the 400. Count LaPorte’s Kailee Schoof (3,200) and Crown Point’s Amanda Komasinski (pole vault) qualified for state, too.
There are only 26 freshman entrants across the 13 individual events for the state finals, including no throwers, and six of those are from Northwest Indiana.
K.V.’s Jungels, whose older sister Joli is a junior, will compete individually in the long jump and run with the Kougars’ 400 relay.
Cooper learned quickly at the regional that intimidation is a huge hindrance.
“At the regional I felt like in the prelims I was running scared,” Cooper said. “I was nervous about running against seniors and people better than me. I just hung my head and said, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Then coach Karl Repay and her mother (and AAU coach) Sharon Cooper intervened.
“We talked to her about being competitive and what this meant and what this should mean to her,” Repay said. “Then she looked amazing.”
Cooper was the fifth seed entering the finals of the 100 and ended up second to Merrillville senior Airrica Harper.
Repay said he knows Cooper can run faster Saturday in Bloomington. With one qualifier last year and two this year, he also hopes to make state trips a tradition. Cooper does, too.
“I’m coming into state to run it like it’s my last race,” Cooper said. “I’m giving it my all. Not that many freshmen get this opportunity. Whether I win state or I don’t win, I’ll know in my heart that I gave it my all.”