by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic senior Annika Holstrom placed sixth overall at the Special District One Championships with a 21:32 finish.

Any nagging doubts about the Valley Catholic girls’ cross country team’s chances of repeating as district champions were utterly stamped out at the Special District One Championship on Thursday.

With four girls rounding off the top 10 individual rankings, including sophomore Maricela Jaroch who took second overall, the Valiants put the finishing touches on the district crown by beating Catlin Gabel 37-53.

“I thought we all raced really, really well, and it paid off in the end,” said senior Grace Mannen who placed seventh overall. “Here at pre-districts we were kind of iffy. We were a little bit behind Catlin Gabel, and we just worked really hard as a team and pushed ourselves and each other. Being a senior, I just wanted to race hard for my team. I thought I performed well, and I’m just so happy we did what we did here today.”

Losing three key seniors from last season’s squad, including 2012 Special District One Champion Josephine Chau, some thought the Valiant girls were rebuilding while preparing for the future. Jaroch and Annika Holstrom admitted they weren’t sure if Valley Catholic would reclaim the top.

“But, after this race and working hard through the season, I’m glad we’re back up here,” said Jaroch. “It shows that we’ve improved a lot as a team, especially with Hannah Rehm. She never ran cross country before, and she’s a sprinter in track, so this is a big deal for her. She did really well today.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic sophomore Ermina Lee was part of a Valiant pack that helped Valley take first as a team at the Special District One Championships.

Holstrom, Mannen and sophomore Ermina Lee formed a pack of Valiants that eased during the initial mile, which allowed them to work into the second and third miles.

Mannen placed seventh (21:46), and Lee was 10th at 22:04. Senior Morgan McDougal was 12th (22:50), senior Karina Jaroch was 14th (22:54), and newcomer Hannah Rehm took 21st (24:06).

“I was really afraid we weren’t going to be very good this year after losing so many girls,” said Holstrom. “I wanted us to be amazing because it’s my last year. We wanted to come out here and win. So, we worked really hard every day. We had morning runs and really pushed ourselves. We did amazing. I’m so proud of us.”

Jaroch praised Samantha Slusher’s race, noting the Catlin Gabel freshman has a world of talent and potential.

The Valiant sophomore is no slouch, either, and she stuck with the district champ for the first two miles of the race. Second place was pleasing to Jaroch, who still has two more years to catch Slusher. “I got worn out after those first couple loops,” said Jaroch. “Those hills were definitely hard, especially when I tried to stay with her. She’s a good runner, and if she keeps working hard, she can go great places. I would’ve liked to have been closer to her, but I’m still very happy with my race.”by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic sophomore Maricela Jaroch took second at the Special District One Championship Meet on Thursday to help the Valiants take first overall.

Holstrom hauled to the finish line with a spectacular, evenly matched final sprint with Catlin Gabel’s Kelsey Hurst. Trailing Hurst by a couple steps, coming down the hill leading to the tape, Holstrom strenuously stretched her arms and legs as far as they could go and almost nudged Hurst as they crossed shoulder-to-shoulder.

Hurst’s 21:31 finish barely beat Holstrom’s 21:32, but the senior’s effort in rising up the leaderboard and taking sixth individually was crucial in the Valiants getting the overall team victory.

“I wasn’t sure if I could kick it in because I was feeling really tired,” said Holstrom. “At first, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just let her beat me,’ but something just came over me, and I started sprinting. I was going with her and really wanted to beat her.”by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic senior Grace Mannen was the Valiants third finisher at the Special District One Championships.

For Holstrom, who battled breathing problems last year, Thursday’s race was a reward for never throwing in the towel when times got hard. She learned how to take deep breaths, how to breathe through her nose and stay relaxed during the race. Holstrom’s strategy of pacing herself during the first mile and kicking hard during the last mile got the results she’d hoped for prior to districts.

“I was so proud of myself,” said Holstrom. “Last year, I got really bad asthma, so I’ve been trying to work through that. But, this year, I didn’t have any asthma problems. I just worked really hard, and my new strategy worked really well.”

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