WESTVILLE — Fifth place wasn't acceptable for La Porte senior cross country runner Conner Havens.

As the Slicers' top boys runner crossed the finish line in Saturday morning's Duneland Athletic Conference cross country meet on the Purdue Northwest campus, Havens didn't look pleased with his finishing spot and 16:15 time.

After catching his breath, stretching and cooling off, he explained why.

"I came into today really thinking I had a chance of breaking 16 (minutes) and placing in the top two or three," Havens said. "I mean, fifth place isn't bad at all considering I finished 11th last year. But I trained really hard this offseason and expect more from myself — especially on a fast course like this."

Havens pins part of this performance to a more laid-back start, playing catch-up toward the end of the race. He said the guys in front of him started to pick it up after the first kilometer while he stayed back a bit. If he could have picked it up when they did, he said, maybe a top two or three finish would have been in the cards.

La Porte boys and girls head coach Corbin Slater understands why Havens might have been a bit disappointed, but was proud of the progress he's made from last year to now.

"He's made great strides this past year to become the runner he is," Slater said. "He did all the right things this offseason, running every day. Even in the winter. It's great to see him get to where he is now, but he has high expectations for himself; as he should."

Fortunately for Havens, Saturday won't be the last time he runs for La Porte. Sectionals lie ahead next Saturday, and if he's lucky, a few weeks later, a gettable course in the state championships, giving him a chance to break the 16-minute mark.

"Our big goal this year is to qualify for state," Havens said. "We've got to run a lot better in sectionals than we did today, but I know we can do it. I'd love if we could get there, personally, because the course for state is a (personal record) course. It runs fast, so maybe I can break 16 (minutes) then if we get there."

Crown Point's Geno Christofanelli led the field in 15:35.5. Valpo was team champion with 37 points, followed by CP (50) and Chesterton (64). La Porte took fourth with 122 and Michigan City (227) was eighth.

While the Slicers' boys team has aspirations to run deep into the postseason, their girls team that features no seniors is a little different.

"It's all about gradually improving," Slater said. "We did an awesome job of that today. You saw me after the girls finished today; I was hyped up for them. A good amount of them PR'd, and that's exactly what we want to see every week. Just keep getting better every time you go out and run and maybe we can build something off of that."

One of the Slicers' girls that didn't achieve a personal-best time Saturday was still their top performer. Junior Ella Bensz finished in 12th and earned an all-conference nod for her 20:02 finish — an impressive enough feat in itself. But when you consider this is her first year ever running cross country competitively, it makes it all the more so.

Bensz switched over from volleyball to cross country this season and has picked it up rather quickly. She ran track for La Porte already, making the transition a bit easier. Her father was most impressed with how she went from "standing on a volleyball court all fall to running a couple miles every day." Bensz's early success may seem a bit shocking to some, but not to her coach.

"She's a competitor," Slater said. "Her brother (Tyler) was a long jumper for us, and he was the same way. She just works really hard, competes every day and you see how much that's paid off. I'm super proud of her making all-conference this year. She deserves it, 100 percent."

Lake Central won a snug four-team battle for the team title with 61, just ahead of Valpo and Crown Point (63 each) and Chesterton (67). La Porte (148) was sixth while MC had just one runner. The Bulldogs' Maddie Russin was the race winner in 18:15.8

Duneland Conference Championship

La Porte's Conner Havens and Ella Bensz finished fifth and 12th, respectively.

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