Filling The Void / Newell takes over leadership role for top-ranked North girls team

When Mackenzie Barnett graduated this spring, Columbus North not only lost its leader on the cross-country course, the Bull Dogs lost their leader off the course.

Barnett, who finished seventh at state last year to lead the Bull Dogs to a third-place team finish, has moved on to Lipscomb University, leaving a huge leadership void. North junior Brianna Newell has done her best to fill that void.

“Mackenzie was a huge leader,” Newell said. “She was always there, and she set the right example and I feel like someone had to step up and take that spot. I feel like everyone kind of did, but I kind of felt like I should also try my best to be that role model and person for all the other girls, especially all the younger girls who just joined the team. I try to set the right example in and out of practices. I try to do what’s expected and then even beyond that.”

Newell and Barnett went back and forth as the Bull Dogs’ No. 1 runner in 2019. Barnett assumed the top spot all of last season, and Newell shared the No. 2 and 3 spots with classmate Lily Baker.

This year, Baker and junior newcomer Julia Kiesler have been the top runners on a North squad that took over the state’s No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season. Newell has been a solid No. 3, but she’s still among the best in the state.

“She’s probably right now in the state a top-15 girl, top-20 girl,” North coach Rick Sluder said. “She’s running very well. She’s as competitive as she’s ever been, and we see that in practice daily, too. If we say to run 12 400s, and here’s the pace we want, she’s right there leading the group and organizing it together. So she’s running as well as she ever has.”

Newell ran her top time for 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) is 18 minutes, 19 seconds, last year. Her best this year is 18:23 in North’s Rick Weinheimer Classic at Ceraland.

“I think I’ve been able to stay pretty consistent,” Newell said. “I’m looking for a faster time, but it will come when it comes. I think I’ve mentally grown a lot, which personally matters more than any fast times.”

Sluder has noticed that mental growth, as well.

“This year, with Mackenzie gone to graduation, Bri has really stepped into a leadership role with us and helping to organize some summer stuff, really leading practices, getting people pushed in the right direction, getting us in spots where we need to be,” Sluder said. “She’s been kind of a leader in warmups and meets. She’s really assumed that role in practice, too, getting up front, hitting the paces that are designed and running the workout like we want it.

“She’s really been a huge leader in that regard, and it’s a role that I didn’t know who was going to fill this year because Mackenzie had done it off and on for three years and definitely for two,” he added. “So we were really curious who would be that leader for us.”

This year, that’s been Newell, whose younger sister, freshman Sierra Newell, has competed in some varsity meets for the Bull Dogs this season. Their older brother Matt, a senior, is one of the top runners on the top-ranked and defending state champion North boys squad.

The Bull Dog girls will be looking for their third consecutive semistate title on Saturday at Brown County’s Eagle Park.

“I’m really happy with where the team is because I think we’ve really stepped up and improved as a whole,” Brianna Newell said. “We want to do our best and continue to prove ourselves and keep striving for that next level.”