MIDDLEBURY — There's a standard of excellence for the Northridge Girls Cross Country program.
Those expectations weren't met last year.
"Last year was kind of a disappointing season," said Raiders coach Ryan McClane, who's in his 22nd year leading the program. "We didn't make it to the state meet with our team or with any individuals."
Northridge placed 16th last year at the semi-state and entered this season with inexperience and doubt.
As the calendar flips to November, the mood surrounding the program is vastly different.
Confidence is rising among the runners, who are mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen.
Northridge is back in a familiar spot this Saturday competing in the state finals. It will mark the 25th time in the last 28 years that the Raiders are in the state finals.
A spot at state was secured by Northridge after placing fifth at the New Haven Semi-state last Saturday. The Raiders totaled 169 points and was only a point behind fourth place Hamilton Southeastern.
"We knew we had two good juniors from last year coming back," McClane said. "We didn't know what we'd get back to go with them. We picked up a couple of good freshman.
"We kind of jelled three to four weeks ago. We ran OK this year and were competitive, but we weren't a state caliber team going into the sectionals by my standards."
McClane wasn't satisfied with his team's performance at the Northern Lakes Conference Meet where the Raiders finished second behind Warsaw by two points. Northridge was first in the conference during the regular season.
"It woke us up," McClane said. "If we couldn't compete with Warsaw how we could we compete at semi-state. Our front four girls were incredible. There was too big of a gap at the back end."
The gap closed at sectionals and depth was developed.
Northridge had six runners place in the top 10, with those individuals being freshman Haylee Hile (4th, 19:38), senior Caitlin Clark (5th, 20:00), senior Alison Bache (6th, 20:06), sophomore Clare Ritchie (8th, 20:16), freshman Tamenech Baylis (9th, 20:17) and junior Keeton LeBaron (10th, 20:29).
"Our fifth and sixth runner were incredible," McClane said. "That's when I realized that this team was in position where they could sneak into the state meet.
"When you look back at the semi-state rankings at the beginning of year we were ranked 13th. After sectionals this year we moved up to the sixth spot. People were starting to believe in us. The girls were definitely improving and the state saw that.
"We ran great at semi-state and it wasn't good weather to run in. It was one of the three fastest teams I've ever coached."
At the semi-state, McClane had five girls (Hile, Bache, Clark, Baylis, Ritchie) break 20 minutes in the 5K for only the third time in his coaching career.
Patience has paid off.
"Working with a young team I didn't want to put a lot of pressure on them," McClane said. "I told them how good they could be. I showed them that in 2012 at the regional we had five girls under 20 minutes. That was probably the strongest team I've seen at regional. I believed that this is where we could go with this team. We had to get the girls to believe in themselves and have confidence. Things eventually started to click.
"One of the things that helped us is when we started running in packs. Our younger kids had something to focus on. It was a great advantage to them to know how fast they needed to run to be where they wanted to be. We started to develop that in our conference meet and at the sectional. I think between our No. 2 and No. 5 runner there was a 20-second gap time at semi-state. They ran with each other in sight. We'll try to repeat that at the state meet."
Hile's emergence this season has particularly excited McClane.
The freshman standout seems to be peaking at the end of the season. She finished first with a season-best time of 18:43 at the conference meet. Hile lowered her time even more at the semi-state, as she finished finished ninth with a clocking of 18:33.
"(Hile) dropped a minute off her time (at the conference meet) and that was quite a surprise," McClane said. "I never dreamed that she would be able to run with (Elkhart Memorial runner) Morgan (Dyer) at all this season. At some point in her career I thought Haylee could run like Morgan. It was a shot in the arm for is that she could run with a girl as good as Morgan is."
Running at the state meet will be a new experience for most of the girls on the Northridge team. Only Clark, LeBaron and Bache ran on the team in 2017 that made it to state.
"I'm not putting a lot of pressure on the girls," McClane said. "I'm not talking to them about the course. I'm just going to let them get out there and experience it. I don't want the girls to have too much on their mind.
"We're probably picked to finish around 17th. It would be nice to shoot for around 12th place. It's a state meet and anything can happen. It's a difference course. You don't see a lot of course like that around here. It's more open and up and down then the Ox Bow and IPFW courses. The competition is the best that you can get and it's good for our younger runners to experience that.
"It has been a fun team to coach. They have great attitudes and they've been a coach's dream to work with. To figure things out this year and come along like they have has been very gratifying to me."
IHSAA CROSS COUNTRY STATE FINALS
WHEN: November 2, Boys 1 p.m., Girls 1:45 p.m.
WHERE: Terre Haute, LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course
LOCAL TEAMS: Northridge Girls (Alison Bache, Tamenech Baylis, Caitlin Clark, Haylee Hile, Keeton Lebaron, Emma Long, Clare Ritchie)
LOCAL BOYS: Drew Hogan (Goshen), Cole Johnston (Goshen), Jack Moore (Northridge).
LOCAL GIRLS: Morgan Dyer (Elkhart Memorial), Brooke Neal (Penn).