As he neared the finish line at the Division I regional cross country championships, Lakota East High School senior Dustin Horter let a big smile escape. As he crossed the line, he pumped his fist in celebration.
The only thing to catch up to Horter on Saturday was his emotions.
On Friday, he announced his commitment to run for Indiana University. It capped an eventful week where Horter struggled with his training leading up to the defense of his regional championship.
“I didn’t feel as smooth as I usually have. But I got here today and I felt really good,” Horter said. “I got in the zone and I prayed really hard before this race. God gave me the strength to do it.”
On a cold and wet afternoon on the 3.1-mile course winding around Troy’s levee, Horter blistered the course and regional record in 15 minutes and 2.6 seconds. He broke the record of 15:15.8 set by Mason’s Zach Mills in 2010 and just missed his fifth sub-15 minute effort this season.
“Just excited. It’s been a big week for me,” said Horter, his voice cracking and tears in his eyes knowing his East teammates won’t join him at state. “I love my team so much, and we kind of struggled today.”
Horter advances to the D-I state championships next Saturday at National Trail Raceway in Hebron. He’s the defending champion there too.
The last time Horter lost was at the Midwest Meet of Champions at Hilliard Darby in September. He ran a 14:36.77 for the second-fastest prep 5K time in the nation. Buckeye Valley senior Zach Kreft beat him in 14:29.95.
“I’ve got a target on my back. Everybody is gunning for me,” Horter said. “When I took a loss earlier this year, my rank in the nation took a hit. My adversity this year has been unmatched. I haven’t faced anything like that before. That loss, something just woke me up. It’s a new energy bursting from that.”
While Horter isn’t ready to surrender his state title this year, he has a pretty good idea who might win state next season. Middletown junior Conant Smith finished second to Horter on Saturday in 15:25.8.
“I look at Conant as a great competitor. He’s a great guy and extremely humble,” Horter said. “I love competing against him. I’ve had the upper hand, but I’ve just been on. Next year he’s going to be doing what I’m doing right now. He’s going to be killing the races. He’s coming next year, I guarantee it.”
Smith finished second to Horter at last year’s regional meet and third in the state meet.
“These are for qualifying. I don’t go into it thinking I need to stay with him until a certain point,” Smith said of his strategy. “I just know I can qualify and that’s all that matters today.”
Smith knows Horter is the runner to beat. But at state he’s focusing on running his best race. The rest will be determined.
“I’m going to go as hard as possible. I know there are four guys who will run super fast. I just want to be up there with that group,” Smith said. “I just think of it as a big race, but just another race. A state title would be so awesome, but I just have to work hard and do my best.”
Elsewhere, Monroe senior Rachel Ploeger finished second at the regional meet in 2016. She was worried about even finishing this year.
Ploeger ran through knee pain she first experienced at last week’s district meet. She did work on an elliptical machine to prepare for regional, but did no running until the gun went off Saturday.
“When I got to the half-mile point, I was thinking I can win this,” said Ploeger, who did exactly that.
She won the D-II race in 18:35.3 for a comfortable victory over Alter’s Perri Bockrath (19:04.9).
Ploeger suspects the pain is patellar tendonitis. But she’s not letting it slow her down with one meet remaining. Her goal at state is top two.
“It’s feeling better today, but I don’t know how it will play out at state,” Ploeger said. “My main goal today was to do as much as I could to try and get my team to state.”
Other locals headed to state are Lakota East’s team and Lebanon’s Faith Duncan in Division I girls, Lebanon’s squad in Division I boys, Monroe’s Emily McMurry in Division II girls and Monroe’s Marty Zumbiel in Division II boys.