CHARLOTTESVILLE — It didn’t take long for the laughter to ensue.
As the Eastern Hancock girls cross-country team congregated near the playground alongside the east side of the elementary school for practice, the chatter grew to rambunctious levels quickly.
In the middle of the fun stood the instigators, smiling and joking while loading up on some pre-training carbohydrates.
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“They’re almost like sisters,” Eastern Hancock head coach Rex Putt struggled to remark over his lighthearted seniors’ hysterics. “Sometimes they fight like sisters, but for the most part, they’re always having a good time. They support each other. They really enjoy being around each other and all of their teammates.”
Since the senior foursome of Emily Schrope, Cara Johnson, Karlee Gray and Hope Spaulding joined the team as freshmen in 2012, the good times have rolled — and so has their winning tradition.
The tight-knit group of 17-year-olds constitutes 50 percent of the eight-person varsity roster. Together they have run to a historic fourth straight Mid-Hoosier Conference championship, a semistate qualification four years ago and are three-time regional qualifiers.
Individually, hard work and beating the clock have played significant roles, but unified chemistry is what drives the team’s winning pulse.
“Hope and Karlee have run all the way through since the sixth grade,” Putt said. “Cara came over from New Palestine and joined the group in the eighth grade. Emily never ran cross-country until her freshman year.
“They’re different personalities, that’s for sure, all four of them, but they all seem to mesh. They’re a special group.”
Gray and Johnson, said Spaulding, keep the team loose.
“Hope and Emily are the disciplined ones. Me and Karlee like to have fun. They help us get serious when it’s time to get serious,” Johnson said.
More times than not, Gray and Johnson make it a point to keep the atmosphere lively, and hardly ever take a day off when the team needs a stress-melting boost.
“Sometimes, they get really crazy,” Schrope said with a smile. “I’ll try to get everyone focused back in and not let them get too wild, but it’s not easy because we do have a good time. It’s a good balance.”
In between outlandish and earnest, the Royals have discovered the secret behind their success, and it picked up from the start of the season.
The Royals won at the Triton Early Bird Invitational to open the year, with Gray leading the way with a 12th-place overall finish.
The Royals placed in the top 10 at the Marion Invitational, Rushville Invitational and seventh at the Blackford Invitational this month. At the Centerville Invitational, the team was runner-up.
Freshman Taylor Stine, an all-Hancock County runner (seventh) last week, paced the group at fourth. Johnson wasn’t too far behind at eighth overall. Gray and Spaulding have also routinely carved through the pack to find the finish line in the top 25.
The conference meet, however, is where the biggest emphasis is placed.
“We started it. We entered the conference our freshman year and we came in and won it. We wanted to continue that tradition,” Spaulding said. “I hope the teams after us can do it when we leave because it’s important to us.
“It’s kind of hard with county, competing there as such a small school, so our county is conference every year.”
As a school of 416 students compared to Greenfield-Central’s 1,429, Mt. Vernon’s 1,170 and New Palestine’s 1,094, the Royals know they can’t contend for the team title against their much larger neighboring inter-county rivals.
Individually, they show little fear, though, and that was evident on Sept. 22 at New Palestine High School.
Johnson earned all-county honors with an eighth-place run. She was joined by Spaulding, who finished 13th.
Stine, who the elders have taken under their wing along with sophomore Annie Floyd, nearly pushed the team to a third-place finish.
At conference on Sept. 19, the roles were reverse for the Royals.
“It’s nice walking in and being the intimidating team for once, and not the little ones,” Gray joked. “We were the team to beat.”
The Royals upheld their status by placing seven runners in the top 21. Three of the four seniors were named all-conference for a fourth consecutive year with top-15 times.
Johnson ran a personal-best in 21 minutes, 42.7 seconds for fifth. Gray was sixth at 22:10, also a career-best time.
Spaulding was ninth (22:33.6) while Schrope, who has been sidelined most of her career due stress fractures stemming from osteoporosis, competed in her first conference race for 21st.
Stine took third, Floyd was 14th and Liberty Durham was 16th.
“We were all so happy to have every one running,” Spaulding said. “We’ve never had everyone compete at conference before because of injuries and other things. It was really special.”
Their run of five regional qualifications in Putt’s 10-year tenure is near the top of the team’s list of accomplishments — and substantial trends.
“We’ve got lots of them (trends),” Gray joked. “I like the semistate tradition, making history and then winning conference four times in a row, but they’re all nice.”
The team’s semistate berth unfolded when Emily’s older sister Kiersten captained the squad. A multi-school record holder, Schrope now runs at Marian University, but she left a profound impact on the, now, seniors.
“It would be kind of sad if we didn’t (get back to regional). It’s kind of an expectation now,” Spaulding said. “We feel like we should get there. It’s like second nature for us. We don’t expect anything less.
“We were the first to go to semistate in a girls sports. It’s pretty cool to say we were the first to do that our freshmen year.”
With sectional less than two weeks away (Oct. 10 at New Palestine), the group doesn’t plan to change their approach.
“We yell at each other during races,” Spaulding said.
“We talk to each other all the time while we’re running, at practice and even during races,” Gray added. “We talk a lot.”