WEST SALEM — Kora Malecek celebrated her MVC cross country individual championship victory on Thursday by throwing leaves into the air and petting a teammate’s puppy at Maple Grove Venues.

Malecek, an Onalaska High School freshman, became the youngest runner to win the MVC individual title since current Holmen senior Mason Kalander won it two years ago as a sophomore. Malecek also is the first freshman MVC champion since Megan Hakomaki, who won the 1998 individual conference championship for Central.

“I still consider myself an eighth grader sometimes,” Malecek said. “The rest of the girls on my team are poised and mature, and I’m over here liking dogs. I still have a lot of kid in me. It’s crazy to think that I won this.”

Malecek won the race, and she prefers to run without a strategy. The Hilltoppers’ freshman won in 19 minutes, 15 seconds in a 5,000-meter race, and her average mile time was 6:12.

“I just try to make it to the last 400, and try to survive that,” Malecek said laughingly. “I don’t have the greatest kick. Usually my strategy is go fast and kick. I have more of an idea of what I want to do (this year).”

She edged Kalander by 32 seconds. It was Malecek’s season-best time with her previous best coming in the Luther College Invitational on Sept. 9 (19:16).

All season long, Malecek has gone against tough competition — including her sisters, Lydia and Amailia. The Hilltoppers have been in five races this season, and Kora Malecek has won just once.

Kora Malecek finished second in her Hilltoppers’ varsity debut at the Gale Johnson Invitational in August — also at Maple Grove — with a 20:07 performance.

Before taking her first varsity win, Kora Malecek was fourth at Luther and seventh at the Mayo Invitational on Sept. 14.

“It doesn’t matter to me how old or how young whoever I’m racing is,” Kora Malecek said. “If they’re a fast runner, then I want to beat them. It doesn’t matter to me their age or how long they’ve been running.”

Lydia Malecek and Amailia Malecek also finished in the top-5, but it wasn’t enough to catch up with Kora.

“I want to be able to beat Kora, but today, I don’t feel like it was a 100 percent my day,” Lydia Malecek said of the MVC meet. “When we hit the kick, she wasn’t slowing down.”

The Hilltoppers triplets — and the rest of the MVC underclassmen runners — will have the luxury of starting their postseason at Maple Grove in future years.

It started when Central coach Keith Christenson and Onalaska coach Darin Shepardson designed the course to best fit all cross country runners.

Then, the two coaches approached Maple Grove owner Steve Nicolai about turning the former golf course into a top-notch cross country course. Nicolai bought Maple Grove in July 2014 for $1.15 million.

“It goes without saying that we’re blessed to find something like this,” Logan coach Pat Mulrooney said of the course. “We’re running out of places to hold competitions. The MVC has a permanent home for the sport of cross country.”

Coaches are able to accurately and more fairly compare times at the course, especially if teams compete at Maple Grove multiple times per season. For example, Thursday’s race was the third time the Red Raiders ran at the rural West Salem location.

The course isn’t too flat nor is it too hilly.

“It’s a good course, but I do like the fact that you can go back and compare times from year to year,” Christenson said. “We know the course is 5,000 meters, because we’ve measured it multiple times. You want to see overall improvement. This course is legitimate.”

The boys individual champion, Central’s Jett Mickelson, likes the idea of re-visiting the course for the conference championship annually.

“We know perhaps how much we have left and how we’re supposed to feel like at this point and time,” Mickelson said. “I’m really a fan of it. It’s one of the better ideas the MVC has had. It’s nice to compare year-to-year, and I like the course a lot. There’s a nice combination of hills and flat stretches and it’s well-maintained.”