Running her last high school cross-country race, Mother McAuley senior Natalie Wagner took off from the box at the sectional against an extremely deep field.

A mile in, she knew she needed to adjust quickly.

“At the mile, I thought ‘This is it. I have to do it,’” Wagner said. “I had to pick it up. This race, I wasn’t nervous at all, which is surprising for me. I get really nervous for the regional and sectional. I was excited for this. It’s my last race. I wanted to give it everything I had.”

Wagner regrouped over the final two miles, picking up the pace on her way to a 74th-place finish in the individual standings on Oct. 31 at the Class 3A Whitney Young sectional.

Mother McAuley finished 13th (379 points) in the team standings.

The Illinois High School Association decided not to host a state meet this fall due to health concerns, thus ending the cross-country season with the sectional.

Wagner (Mt. Greenwood, St. Christina) finished the three-mile course in 20:08.

The race wound through Lincoln Park’s South Fields, runners completing three laps on a grass course containing the park’s rolling hills and tight turns.

Leading the way for the Mighty Macs just ahead of Wagner was junior Evelyn Rowan (Morgan Park, St. Cajetan) in 65th place (19:45). The senior-junior combination has anchored the McAuley lineup for the last two seasons, a consistent presence at the front of the pack.

“We really like working together,” Wagner said. “We want our team to be good, not just ourselves. Running together is so beneficial. We want the team to do pack running [and stick together].”

Rowan backed up her teammate. Whether in practice or at meets, they try to battle each other, always hoping to achieve some significant time drops.

“At practice we’re always running together,” Rowan said. “We don’t always have good days or bad days on the same day, so it’s nice to push each other.”

At the sectional, the field consisted of some of the strongest teams in the state with a fast, deep field taking on the Lincoln Park course. Rowan said she pushed the pace to keep up with the lead pack through the first mile.

Eventually the course’s hilly terrain got to her, but she closed strong over the final half mile.

“I went out pretty fast trying to stick with the back of the large pack. It was fast,” Rowan said. “Today [as a team] we were trying to compete with the girls around us, see how you feel and have a good last race. I was happy with how I finished.”

The top five individual times scored for each team with freshman Mary Gruber (85th, 20:24) and juniors Mary Kate Carey (98th, 21:07) and Gianna Kmak (104th place, 21:34) also scoring.

Senior Ava Courtney (107th, 21:47) and junior Heather Wagner (111th, 22:03) also competed for the Mighty Macs.

With a young core expected back for McAuley, Rowan said the sectional experience should help build to a strong performance in 2021. Rowan ran at the Class 3A state meet as a sophomore.

“It’s definitely a good thing running here,” Rowan said. “We have a lot of close girls [in time]. This pushes everyone to want it more next year, especially with a lot of juniors. We can have a strong team if we focus, keep training and be ready for anything.”