Featured Sectional Preview: Niles West Showdown 2014

Mimi, Lindsay, and Olivia will duel at full strength for the first time this season (Ilona Koziel photo)

Let’s ditch the pronouncements such as “Sectional of death” or this is “the most anticipated meet in the state” and simply call the Niles West Sectional a cross country meet to watch.

Meet Schedule: Girls-1pm; Boys-2pm

Location: Niles West High School; 5701 Oakton St., Skokie, IL

Course description: new 3-mile layout minus all of the twists and turns that made fast running on a flat surface challenging. The meet directors took a page out of the Lake Park course that hosted sectionals last season. The LP course is fan friendly and a delight for the runners… Niles West will finish on the track just like LP.

Weather outlook: It is going to feel like a bit of a North Pole Artic blast in the wee hours of Saturday. It is fortunate for the competitors that they race in the afternoon when the expected high is going to be 45*F, partly cloudy and 13mph winds. In essence it will be a great day to be a cross country runner. The climes is going to separate the weak from the strong.

2013 meet index: http://il.milesplit.com/meets/155090-3a-sectional-lake-park

Pre-meet interview with meet directors:

Boys’ script-

Let’s meet the teams: #5 Chicago (St. Ignatius), #6 Winnetka (New Trier), #7 Wilmette (Loyola Academy), #10 Elmhurst (York), #15 Glen Ellyn (Glenbard West), #16 Chicago Jones Prep, #22 Park Ridge (Maine South), Chicago Whitney Young, Chicago Lane Tech, Chicago Northside Prep, Chicago Von Steuben, Oak Park-River Forest, Oak Park (Fenwick), Roselle (Lake Park),Villa Park (Willowbrook), Skokie (Niles North), Skokie (Niles West), Northbrook (Glenbrook North)

Meet outlook:

There are 18 teams slated to compete for the five berths that are available to Peoria and the state championship to be held on November 8. Once again there are a boatload of teams positioned to advance and move on- seven ranked teams and as many as ten squads are capable of securing their spots to the promise land.

St. Ignatius is a team that has been solid all season long especially with runners 1-4. Dan Santino (Jr.) is the team’s top runner but he can swap out with teammates Andrew Weber (Sr.), Kallin Khan (Sr.), and John Lennon (Sr.). The Wolfpack has run amok around its competition in major competition when running as a tightly packed unit. Although this group has seldom branched out to lead in a front running manner it can if need be. For example, Khan took the reign of going out extremely fast and well ahead of the field at last weekend’s St. Ignatius Regional. Khan disregarded the above average temperatures which reached near 70 degrees to motor through the first mile in 4:50. While this time is not overly fast, it allowed Khan to stretch the field by over six seconds. In addition, it was done on a course that was eschewed by the CPS Championship held a week prior. Khan would eventually fade to 8th place, but the message was sent that St. Ignatius can and will send one of their guns out front if they have to. The issue for Head Coach Ed Ernst is finding a scoring closer on the #5 position. The split has been above 1:00 in every meet. This will need to be fixed on Saturday.

New Trier has been good when many people thought they have been average. But the truth is when you have a deep squad certain things can be overlooked. Such is the case for the Trevians who have been wracked with injuries before the season started. Head Coach Dave Wisner has relied on the leadership of Josh Rosenkranz (Sr.). He is the team’s top runner busting out with a 14:50 at the First To The Finish Invitational. Rosenkranz has been supported by Austin Santacruz (Sr.) and Jack Litowitz (Jr.). Now that Sam Oh (Jr.), Luke Duros (Sr.), and Om Kamwar (Sr.) are healthy this team should be ready to roll.  A front runner and a tight pack should be in the cards for New Trier on Saturday.

Loyola Academy is another team to watch out for. Aside from being highly ranked all season, the Ramblers are a real good team. They have reloaded after several down seasons and appeared poised to be a main state player for the near future. In the meantime, senior Jack Carroll will hope to lead his team to a sectional championship. They have what it takes with him as a front runner to produce a low score. They also showed how strong and tight-knit of a group at the Loyola Regional by running a tempo without Carroll. Sophomore Matthew Kadus led the 12-second attack from runners 1-6. If the group can keep the bunch together at a much faster pace than 5:25 mile pace they will be in the mix. Christian “Todd” Swenson (Sr.) is slowly getting back to his old form. The Ramblers will need him at his best on Saturday.

Don't you dare think for a moment that York is finished. Mr. Joe Newton and his staff will have their kids thinking the opposite (Koziel photo)

York had been left for dead by pundits, casual fans, observers, true fans, and just plain York haters for the majority of this season. While it is true that the Dukes haven’t been the same as the pre-season #1 team from 2013, they are still a team to be reckoned with. The low point of the season came at the Palatine Invitational when the Dukes of York finished 11th with 283 points. It has been many years since a York team finished outside of a top 5 or even top 10 of a meet. The talk then began on twitter and other forms of social media that York was in danger of not making the state meet. Could it signal the end of the Dukes dynasty as we know it? The last time they were not in the state meet was before legendary Coach Joe Newton took the reigns over 50 years ago. Now perhaps, it appears that freshman Charlie Kern Jr. has come to save the day. Then chirping of the supposed leader and front runner senior Matt Plowman began: ‘What is wrong with Plowman’ people have asked. In fairness to Plowman, he has been dealing with leg issues. Hopefully, he can get himself well enough to compete with the best of them on Saturday. Meanwhile, the upstart youngster- the son of longtime assistant coach (depends on how you interpret it) elder Charlie Kern- placed second at the WSC Silver Conference meet and then won Roselle (Lake Park) Regional in impressive fashion and things became calm in Elmhurst again. Kern Jr. was brought up from the frosh ranks where he dominated his peers this season. At Roselle, Kern Jr. sat back like a veteran before making his move in the second half of the race to win in 14:58. Kern Jr. and fellow underclassman sophomore Liam Hill got the job done to say the least. Hill finished ninth in the race. “We didn’t expect [Kern Jr.] to be this good right away. But he recently ran a mile time trial in 4:30 and that changed everything,” said head assistant coach Jim Hedman of the prodigy. Kern now leads a rejuvenated York team into Skokie on Saturday.

Glenbard West is an interesting team. The Hilltoppers are one of a few teams in the state than can boast of having three true potential #1’s. Paul Christian (Sr.), Chris Buechner (Sr.), and Eric Neumann (Jr.) fit that bill. These are options that any coach would love to have and in a big meet with serious implications, things may work in Glenbard West’s favor. Now the key is for the team to get the scoring pack upfront and in position to strike well over the final half-mile.  What the Hilltoppers need to do is stick with the formula that has gotten them top 5-10 status all season: just race as a team and trust in what has brought you success all season.

Jones has transformed its team into a pack running mold as opposed in past years when they had a front runner or two who would push the pace. Today’s group led by Mark Protsiv (Sr.), Kyle Maloney (Sr.), Nikolas Merten (Jr.) and more. The Eagles have ganged up on the competition by using a swift and commanding foot stomping like they did at the CPS Championships. They spotted the field the first five spots before taking the next five to score 35 points and easily win. It will be a little more difficult to do that at Niles West without someone running up near the front of the pack. The field is just too deep to sit in the middle and assume an aggregate score of 160 points will get a ticket to Peoria. In order words, Jones Prep is going to have to break ranks a bit in order to accomplish their mission.

Let’s hope in Maine South’s sake they can avoid being on the bubble for the sixth time in seven years. The Hawks have either been fourth, fifth, and sixth in the sectional round. That is heart break as well as heart attack city for the team and their fans. And guess what? They are headed for the same scenario again because of the opportunity to advance to state is a reality. Senior leader Henry Mierzwa is expected to be at the top of the heap and that will help his team’s cause. Fellow senior Paul D’Ambrosio is capable of contending for top honors. He has a season best of 15:22 and has run 9:27 for two miles dating back to last year.  But the key to advancing on is closing out the race with a solid #5 runner.

There are several other teams to watch out for and they include Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Oak Park-River Forest, and Fenwick. Each of these teams possesses a great runner and they will need to run a flawless if not perfect race to get inside of the top five.

The individual race is up for grabs-

The individual race is expected to be a good one. The question is who is going to take the gavel and break open the field? Jack Carroll may have the best knowledge of the course layout after winning the Pat Savage Invite earlier in the season. He didn’t move past Dan Santino until well inside the final mile for the win. They will tangle again for sure…. Pavlo Hutsalyuk (Sr., Lane Tech) is the CPS champion and certainly has the tools to get the job done for three-miles. He is a front runner with tremendous leg speed and solid endurance- a great future miler on the next level. But first he will need to prove that he can run with some of the best talent in the state for the duration. Charlie Kern Jr. has emerged as a potential favored target after a surprise win at Lake Park. It will be interesting to see how he holds up in the biggest meet to date in his young career. Henry Mierzwa has been lurking all season and may be ready bust out and take the title. How about someone from Glenbard West? Or Whitney Young like the freshman Clayton Mendez? Josh Rosenkranz is a safe pick as well. Regardless of who turns out to be the winner, they are going to be a formable competitor.

The lead chase pack with Maggie Scholle (So., Lane Tech) and some others will make the girls race one to watch (Koziel photo)

Girls’ script-

Let’s meet the teams: #1 Glen Ellyn (Glenbard West), #6 Winnetka (New Trier), #21 Elmhurst (York), #22 Oak Park (Fenwick), #25 Chicago (St. Ignatius), Chicago Northside Prep, Chicago Whitney Young, Chicago Lane Tech, Wilmette (Loyola Academy), Chicago Jones Prep, Chicago Taft, Oak Park-River Forest, Lombard (Glenbard East), Roselle (Lake Park), Park Ridge (Maine South), Glenview (Glenbrook South), Evanston, Skokie (Niles West)

Here is the deal with the girls: top ranked Glenbard West is the best team in the entire state and US#11. The Lady Hilltoppers may be the best set of seven girls in the Midwest as well but the only thing that matters this weekend is the Niles West Sectional and a berth to the state championship. This team is the defending state champion with everything in its arsenal that a squad who is looking to repeat. Head Coach Paul Hass’ bunch has a true front runner in junior Lindsay Graham; they also have great secondary runners who would be all state runners on virtually any other team in the state with senior Lisa Luczak and freshman Lindsey Payne. Plus, the Hilltoppers have six girls running under 18:00. The scoring spread has been very high- as much as 2:00 on one occasion. But that is suspect when you have your lead girl running in the mid- 16:00s. For anyone to beat them they are going to have to break up the pack and finish and find someone to challenge Graham.

New Trier is a team that is capable of challenging Glenbard West. It will have to start with the ultimate neutralizer senior Mimi Smith. She is starting to come into her own after starting the season out with kind of “average” by someone of her stature with 8th, 5th, and 2nd place finishes in major competition. Smith has not been hurt as her father Charles Smith maintained, but rather building into what is expected to be a long season that is sure to extend all the way to nationals. After Smith, the next key runner is sophomore Cara Keleher. Keleher has stepped up into a solid #2 runner; she holds a personal best of 17:44 performed at the FTTF Invite. She will need to be a top 10 and maybe a top 5 finisher on Saturday for her team to have a chance at being a spoiler. The corps of the Lady Trevians squad is deep with five girls running under 18:30. They should be able to keep the split very low and the team in the mix to the end.

The depth of the teams has improved mightily over the past month as squads like Fenwick, York, and St. Ignatius have all gotten healthy and matured.

Fenwick will ride the coat tails of senior Olivia Ryan and freshman Annie Mannion. This tandem has boosted a club that has been down for several years. The Lady Friars finished second at the Peoria Invite in early October. The confidence from that race should transpire at sectionals in that they can compete for a top five spot. Add sophomore Nicole Finn as a formable #3 runner. She has run 18:30 this season.

York appears to have improved well enough this season to be considered a strong candidate for Peoria. The Lady Dukes do not have a front runner among its squad but they do have a tight-knit top seven that has averaged under-45 seconds well past the top five. York will need senior Elizabeth Hagstrom to step up as the leader that she has been. She struggled at conference and had a so-so race at regionals. Thankfully freshman Erin Davies and senior Hannah Wahlgren have been close enough in races to lend a helping hand. It may just come down to all seven girls pitching in instead of five.

St. Ignatius had a rough start to their season that was wracked by injuries and illness. The pre-season ranked Wolfpack then began to look suspect and overrated as the season wore on. But over the past several weeks things began to improve. Familiar names like seniors Olivia Meyer and Alexis Jakubowski are now back to assist to their team in good standing. Junior Kyleigh Spearing is in her first season of cross country and she has been solid in recent time. The standout tri-athlete will have a say in how St. Ignatius will perform on Saturday.

Mimi vs. Lindsay could be a state meet preview duel-

Unless someone else can step forward, it will be Mimi Smith vs. Lindsay Graham for the sectional title. Smith is the defending state champion and Graham finished second in the 3200m state championship this past spring. Graham has enjoyed her best season to date- some recent exploits have included destroying the Hinsdale Central course record with a smoking 16:35. She avenged her only loss to Hinsdale Central super sophomore Alexis Haff who was previously undefeated in the process. So it appears as though Graham is the one to beat… not so fast! Smith has gone 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 1st in her last four competitions. Although she hasn’t run a blazing time like Graham, Smith has a personal best of 16:43 and did run 16:59 on the old rugged Niles West course two seasons ago. So basically this race could be billed as a draw. They are essentially even in talent and accomplishments. It is going to come down to who makes a mistake first or last. It’s that simple.

Olivia Ryan has always excelled in cross country and she is a front runner. So expect her to at least start out stalking Graham and Smith. If the pace is too fast early on, she would be wise to retreat back to the chasing pack. Maggie Scholle (So., Lane Tech), Christine Mujica (Sr., Niles West), Lisa Luczak, Lindsey Payne, and perhaps another Glenbard West runner should be fighting for supremacy among the top five.