Class 3A Boys State Championship Cross Country Preview

Keep in mind that Hinsdale Central are the defending state champions (Steve Bulgarin photo)
State week! Historic Detweiller Park in Peoria has held a special place in my heart ever since I first ran there my sophomore year during the season but I don’t think I’m the only person in Illinois who feels that way. I’ve been to the state meet both as part of a qualifying team and to watch individuals from our school, and it is hard to parallel the excitement and energy at the park. 
Obviously, the story of this year has been the power disparity in the state, since the power has been pretty concentrated in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago. The hyped-up matchup between Sandburg and Hinsdale Central at the Marist Sectional was a little shocking; Sandburg ran a 9 second split on five guys (and 20 seconds on 7) to win 39-96 over the Red Devils, who held out usual top three runner Matt McBrien (Sr.). So what did we learn? Other than that Sandburg are the new state favorites, not a whole lot.
Editor’s note: race time will begin at 2pm and awards at 3pm. You can follow the action via Illinois Prepster's twitter @ilptt 
Let’s take a look at each of the teams individually.

Team Rundown

Sandburg has come on like gang busters this season and won't stop until they grab the 1st place trophy at 3p on Saturday 
The Favorite-
Orland Park Sandburg – The Eagles have been running tight as a pack the whole year, and even after dominating in Peoria early in the year—twice—Hinsdale Central remained the state favorite. But now that Tom Brennan (Jr.) has emerged as a solid top 10 state contender with the Torpy twin brothers (juniors Sean and Chris) and the rest of the Eagles’ pack close behind, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Sandburg being the heavy favorites. Traditionally, sectional success translates to state championship success, and Sandburg’s incredible performance at Marist suggests they are more than capable of providing a worthy sequel in Peoria this Saturday. If Sandburg wins the state meet, it will be the first time since 1967-1970 that the highest boys’ classification in Illinois was won by four different teams in four different years (and the first time that will occur since classifications were split in 1976). 
The Chasers-
Hinsdale Central – Although the defending state champs are looking a little less consistent at the end of this season, don’t expect them to lay down and relinquish the 1st place trophy—Blake Evertsen (So.), Chris Brenk (Jr.) and McBrien have been as good as any top three in the state all year. While the pack early in the year was incredible, it has been vulnerable lately; McBrien did not run for health reasons at Marist and early year scorer Nathan Hill (Jr.) has his own issues throughout the year, including a fall (twisted ankle) at the conference meet. Josh Feldman (Sr.), Alex Domiano (Sr.) and Griffin Gartner (Sr.) were the other scorers for Central at Marist but all fell outside of Sandburg’s top six. I do not doubt their ability to defend their title from last year but there will have to be some more red and white jerseys mixed in with Sandburg’s crowd if there’s any chance of that.
Naperville (Neuqua Valley) – The triumphant return of Connor Horn (Jr.) from a bad season-ending injury last year has been just that; he has won a handful of individual races and finished fourth at the Marist sectional. The Wildcats have floated around the top four of the rankings side-by-side with Lyons Township all year, but were never as close to Hinsdale Central as they were at Marist, when two points separated the teams. The tightness of their pack back towards the fourth and fifth runners could prove to be crucial at the state meet and makes Neuqua as good of a trophy contender as Hinsdale.
Winnetka (New Trier) – The Niles West Sectional seemed too close to call before the meet, but in retrospect it seems clear that New Trier was the best team in the section. Tarek Afifi (Sr.) was incredibly instrumental in the Trevian’s sectional success; as a strong scorer all of last year, Afifi hovered outside of New Trier’s varsity all year until last Saturday, when he was New Trier’s fourth runner and finished 23rd. New Trier’s pack structure is similar to Neuqua’s; with Afifi now running well, a pack including him, Austin Santacruz (Sr.), Jake Litowitz (Jr.) and Luke Duros (Sr.) makes New Trier’s tight 1-5 running well prepared to compete for the trophy.
LaGrange (Lyons Township) – Lyons Township has had a couple of down races and they would surely admit that themselves. The Lions had a 22-second split on five at the West Suburban-Silver meet, but were too far back to challenge Hinsdale Central for the conference title. At sectionals, usual front runner Alex Lima (Jr.) fell back to 62nd as the Lions’ seventh runner after losing his shoe and Lyons Township finished fifth, 34 points ahead of 6th place Oswego but still far too close for comfort. Don’t expect Lima to be that far back again; and don’t expect Lyons to be that far back again either. It is unfortunate that at least two of these five teams won’t trophy at state but that is Illinois cross country for you.
Glenbard West – Arguably the fastest climbers in the state since the start of the postseason, and a lot of it has to do with their strength up front. The Hilltoppers finished a solid second place at the Niles West Sectional- just seven points behind New Trier (who I am very high on as well). Junior Eric Neumann and senior Chris Buechner both slotted top five spots and usual top three runner senior Paul Christian was running after a bad week of sickness and finished as Glenbard West’s fourth leg in 28th place. The Hilltoppers have a lot of upside especially if their pack can mix it up with the Marist teams and is definitely a dark horse pick of mine for a possible trophy at state. 
The Pack-
Downers Grove North – After finishing 2nd in state in 2013, the Trojans seemed to catch the short of the stick by having to deal with an abnormally strong sectional, and was in danger of not making the state meet. So, they took matters into their own hands, finishing fourth and beating Lyons, while only finishing 15 points behind Neuqua Valley and 17 behind Hinsdale. Senior Ryan Clevenger’s automatic single digit stick obviously helps, and now that Alec Danner (So.) and Zac Christiensen (Sr.) is running closer to him, DGN has shown they have probably been underrated throughout the year.
O’Fallon – At first glance, it may seem weird having O’Fallon around, without Alex Riba or Patrick Perrier frontrunning… but it doesn’t take much further inspection to know that senior Dorrian Gordon is a seriously good runner. It is always difficult to gauge O’Fallon’s success against the rest of the state, since their competition usually involves out of state teams or beating up on smaller southern Illinois schools, but the last few years suggest that O’Fallon is seldom overrated. 
Wilmette (Loyola Academy) – At the end of the season, the Ramblers has ridden strong its strong 4-7 pack to a conference championship and a third place performance at sectionals. Senior Jack Carroll and co. have shown that even with senior Christian Swenson’s injury problems, they can field a strong team, and Swenson has only been getting better. Carroll provides a low scorer that Loyola has not had since Todd Ford in 2011 (and first sectional champion since Nico Composto in 2009). 
Arlington Heights (Hersey) – The first Schaumburg Sectional team to make an appearance on this list. Hersey has maintained a lower profile throughout the season than past years, partially because of senior Grant von der Lippe’s early season injury and the heavy varsity turnover outside of him and senior David Rodriguez over the past couple years. Rodriguez is a microcosm for his team; he has quietly been consistently running to top five finishes in large invites all season, and both could sneak in to the same range in Peoria.
Naperville North – Now that senior Kerry Gschwendtner is back running near frontman senior Jon Klaiber, the St. Charles East champions have shown that they have probably also been underrated for most of the year. The Huskies finished ninth at the  Richard Spring Invite, but could finish higher than that in Peoria this Saturday.
McHenry – Similar to Glenbard West, McHenry has charged hard this postseason, following up a second place finish at the Palatine Regional with a strong second place at Schaumburg. McHenry’s 2-5 scorers stayed within 25 seconds of each other at the sectional and it was enough to hold off a surprising Barrington. Junior Michael Hahndorf has been a big reason for this recent success, finishing fourth in regionals and 12th at sectionals, both very top heavy individual races. In case you didn’t know, McHenry also has a serious chance of holding onto the 1 stick at state… and that will make any team much stronger.
New Lenox (Lincoln-Way Central) – Finished second at Quincy, and according to calculations in my virtual meet, they have the muscle to finish in the top 10 at state. Senior Tommy Kolacki and junior Ian Peterson have anchored the team from the front all year and both have the capability of running under 15:00 at Detweiller. The Knights’ pack also came up big time at sectional, finishing strong enough to hold off Edwardsville who has some MAJOR strength at the front of their pack.
Chicago (St. Ignatius) - Throughout the year, the Wolfpack have shown incredibly strong numbers at the front with junior Dan Santino, seniors Kallin Khan and Andy Weber but a weakness in the fifth runner spot was their typical Achilles heel. However, at sectionals, the top pack was broken up and Ignatius avoided a disaster by tying with York for 6th with 140 points. Ignatius can still be very competitive at the front but will need to avoid high scores at the back of the pack at state.
Park Ridge (Maine South) – The Hawks made a slight surprise at Niles West by finishing fourth but have had the talent to be a qualifying team all season. Senior Henry Mierzwa has turned into a dependable #1 and senior Paul d’Ambrosio into a true #2 very nicely of late and the rest of their scorers finished only 13 seconds apart at sectionals to sneak them in past York and Ignatius. Maine South, as a program, has quickly developed into perennial contenders for a November spot at Detweiller.
Elmhurst (York) – The Dukes have not finished outside of the top five since 1969 and it will be difficult for legendary coach Joe Newton to churn out a performance like that this year. Although senior Matt Plowman has been more consistent on the course now, he has failed to be as low of a scorer at York needed him—fortunately, freshman Charlie Kern has emerged like no one else and he, along with Plowman and the rest of the York pack, finished just strong enough at Niles West to avoid giving Kern an individual Detweiller parking pass. The Dukes difficulties with pack running this year have been uncharacteristic, but the team is still strong enough to challenge for a top 10 spot at state.
Edwardsville – As I mentioned earlier, between seniors Brydon-Groves Scott and Wes Schoenthal, The Tigers has some major power up front; Schoenthal’s third place at Quincy was the highest sectional finish for a team’s second runner in 3A this past weekend. Junior Ethan Townzen, who was Edwardsville’s #5 at Quincy, was their #3 at state last year and would give the team a big boost by narrowing the team split, which was 65 second on 5 at Quincy.
Naperville Central – Although the RedHawks finished second behind Naperville North at St. Charles, they probably underperformed a little bit while pack running, since senior Scott Hicks and junior Geoffrey McCullough (who has been Central's #1 all year) finished outside of the Huskies’ top three. Still, the Red Hawks split on five was a miniscule 13 seconds, which was the tightest 1-5 split of all qualifying teams at sectionals outside of our state favorite Sandburg. Along with McHenry, I like Naperville Central as a sneaky good team to keep an eye out for on Saturday.
Huntley – Huntley flashed major potential back in 2012 when three talented freshmen hit the scene, and now two years later, junior Keagan Smith has emphatically led the Red Raiders to state with a blazing 14:34 win at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve. Huntley qualified by the skin of their teeth—Marmion Academy’s fifth runner lost to Huntleys fifth, junior Zach Hollman, by one spot—but the virtual meet suggests Smith’s low score will benefit Huntley in Peoria. Junior Seth Conroy finished fourth at St. Charles East—he’s just as much of an all-state candidate as many other runners this weekend.
Lake Zurich – Lake Zurich is a really young and inexperienced team who had a tough race at Schaumburg and finished fourth after being considered as one of the favorites to win the race. The Bears beat New Trier at Wheeling and won their conference meet by running a tight pack 2-5 behind  sophomore Matt Pereira—however, the pack expanded at Schaumburg and split 30 seconds 2-5, while #2 Patrick Burns was almost a minute behind Pereira. The Bears would love to have a strong showing this weekend, but this meet is importantly provides experience for a young squad that will be in the state championship conversation in the very near future.
Barrington – I will admit to sleeping a bit on Barrington throughout the year, especially after a 13th place finish at Palatine. But senior Kyle Monahan led the pack to a strong enough race to finish third in a pretty wide open Schaumburg Sectional and the Broncos are going to state again. Monahan has been a strong, consistent top runner, especially since some followers of the sport may have expected senior Konrad Eiring to be the top runner after his outstanding 800 meter performances at track state. 
Batavia – Another younger team from the St. Charles Sectional. Led by senior Ryan Wieties, Batavia was as strong through four runners as Naperville North and Naperville Central, but a 40 second 4-5 split widened the gap. Their front pack runners, namely seniors Patrick Redmond and David Morrison, finished tight at St. Charles East but the rest of the pack will want to be closer if Batavia wants a high finish.
St. Charles East – The sectional hosts finished fourth, with junior Mark Sciurba finishing 8th but no other runners scoring exceptionally low sticks. Back at Richard Spring, St. Charles East brought in their entire pack under 16 minutes to finish 8th ahead of several solid teams including 3A qualifiers Lake Zurich, Maine South and Naperville North, but the pack will have to be much further up to beat the same teams again.
Hoffman Estates – The Hawks made some waves with solid pack running throughout the year, especially after winning their division of the Mid Suburban League, but dipped after finishing sixth at the full conference meet. Still, this squad has qualified for state and will try to ride a pack tighter than 30 seconds, as they have typically done. All 5 of their scorers from sectionals return for the 2015 season, as well.
Joliet Central – Junior Raul Rosendo is an incredible front runner who is easily in the all-state individual mix, but the rest of the Joliet Central team, who finished fifth at Quincy, might have a hard time competing this week with some of the city and suburban schools. Having said that, the Steelmen HAVE qualified now for two straight years and return five of their seven runners next year, and could be a short-term fixture at the state meet.
Frankort (Lincoln-Way North) – Unfortunately, someone had to come in 26th in my virtual meet, and the numbers spat out the Phoenix. Junior John Chomiak has been the top runner all year and sophomore Noah Healy has recently closed the gap. But Lincoln-Way North is another young squad (just one senior on the sectional team) who will have their hands full at the state meet. 
Don't be surprised Saturday if you see Brown, Pereira, Dale, Salvano, and Reiser up front like at Schaumburg (C. Boyle photo)
Individual Rundown-
The state matchup between all of the Marist sectional teams has been hyped up all year, but the team race likely pales in comparison to the individual matchup waiting to unfold. McHenry super senior Jesse Reiser and fellow stud senior Zach Dale of Hoffman Estates Conant comprise the best duo in the same Boys classification for years—both class of 2015 standouts in Northern Illinois, both undefeated during the regular season, and both ranked in the top 10 nationally by MileSplit US. The friendly pair feature slightly different racing styles, however, and this makes the matchup this weekend incredibly fascinating.
The case for Jesse Reiser-
Reiser has had the favorite tag ever since he won the 3200 m state championship last year, kicking away from a field which included last year’s cross country champ, Patrick Perrier. Until this year, Reiser has typically run hard from the gun, not leaving any room for tactics and keeping his races honest. He has not been especially challenged individually this year outside of First to the Finish, where a series a strong surges helped him pull away from Ryan Clevenger, and Palatine where a controlled first half of the race allowed him to accelerate a few seconds ahead of the Yorkville senior twin duo Jake and Luke Hoffert. So, Reiser has shown control in his races this season, but at his core, Reiser does not wait for a pace. If Reiser wins the state championship, it will be because he can hammer home a fast yet long, drawn-out pace to wear out Dale and the field. Reiser also has his whole team running at state with him.
The Case for Dale-
Zach Dale may be the consensus underdog in the matchup but that surely does not matter to either Reiser or Dale. While Reiser finished 1st and 7th in the 3200m and 1600m last spring, Dale finished 3rd and 4th respectively, and had an incredible postseason which included a 4:09 full mile at the Festival of Miles in St. Louis, and a 14:29 5k at New Balance Nationals. Dale has raced sparingly throughout the year and his training (along with Reiser’s) has obviously been geared towards the state meet and postseason competition. Although other analysts aren’t seriously looking into the Schaumburg results as an indicator for state, I think the results tell us a little about how state will be run. Dale let Reiser run free during the last quarter mile as he came in a little easier, ahead of Matt Pereira. Dale will likely be the more passive of the two, and I expect the pace to be set throughout the race by Reiser. If Dale wins the state championship, it will be because he can successfully key off of Reiser during the race and make a move in the latter stages.
Well wait, you might be asking, there are only 2 runners in the state? I thought there were 217 running this race? Well, you’d be right. And it would be silly to forget about everyone else.
The case for the field-
Before the season I pegged Clevenger and Pereira as key players on the state stage and they have not disappointed at all this year. Outside of First to the Finish, Clevenger is not only undefeated, he has steamrolled everyone he has run against. Pereira has been just as good as anyone of late, as well; Pereira rolled in to the finish at Schaumburg just one second off of Dale. These two guys’ strengths are pretty clear: Clevenger is consistent and experienced, and Pereira is fresh and EXTREMELY talented. Clevenger knows how to race against Reiser, he’s done it plenty of times in the past. Pereira is red-hot and extremely excited to race: after the Schaumburg race, Pereira couldn’t wait to talk, and was very pleasantly surprised with his time. So these two guys are good, and as good as Dale and Reiser are, they won’t be far behind. 
There are countless other runners who are right up with these guys too. Dorrian Gordon has not run against Chicagoland competition all year but he is the fifth returner from last year and won his sectional race easily. He’s just the latest in a line of fantastic O’Fallon frontrunners. Junior Kevin Salvano came in right behind Pereira at Schaumburg and will be fueled by Buffalo Grove’s absence from Peoria this year. Jack Carroll has tailored his last-second kicking style towards the end of this year, and ran away from Charlie Kern at sectionals. Charlie Kern, who’s not excited to see how he will run at Peoria? The freshman has run with the poise of a senior during the postseason and will not really be tested at Peoria. Blake Evertsen finished 2nd, 11 seconds behind Clevenger at sectionals and will want to score the lowest possible score for Hinsdale, plus he will surely want to be considered with Pereira as one of the fastest Class of 2017 runners. Keagan Smith has emerged as an incredible front runner for Huntley and may have been the most impressive sectional winner. 
It’s impossible to name every runner worthy of a mention but again, that’s just Illinois High School Cross Country. To finish off my preview, here’s just a few thoughts I have going into the final weekend of the 2014 Illinois High School Cross Country season.
The 3 Mile Times-
Since Detweiller has been the site of the state championship for the last four decades and the course has been relatively consistent, comparisons to past years by way of time comparison is inevitable. But what I have learned more than almost anything after my years of cross country running is that the times truly do not matter, even at the state meet. There are too many variables all the time: temperature, humidity, course condition, tactics, and other unforeseeable circumstances that change every single year. Reiser and Dale are insanely talented but we shouldn’t EXPECT them to run sub 14 times. Whether the conditions are ideal for a race that fast is out of the runners’ control, and all we can expect is an incredibly competitive race where each runner will do what he can to place as high as possible and help his team out. If fast times, that would be incredible. But they are impossible to predict, so if you are going to Peoria to watch the race, put your watch away. Enjoy the race. 
The Girls-
The girls are just as fun to watch as the guys, and although I can’t follow girls as closely as I do boys, I am just as excited to see how the girl’s races turn out and everyone else should be too. The storylines will be outlined in other previews but some of the biggest ones include New Trier senior Mimi Smith and Glenbard West running to protect their state titles from last year. Keep an eye out in the 2A girl’s race, as well: Peoria Notre Dame has a runner known as junior Maryjeanne Gilbert who has had a historically incredible season so far, and Detweiller is her home course…so we could be seeing a great performance by her this weekend.
Closing Thoughts as November 8th Approaches-
To all of the runners who will be running in Peoria on Sunday: you are in an incredibly fortunate position to be representing your school at the IHSA State meet. As a high school student, you probably hear too much about ‘enjoying the experience’ or ‘it all goes by so fast’. I heard it way too much, in my opinion, as a high school student. But I learned that when you hear advice over and over, you should probably listen to that advice.
So I am going to give you that advice again. The state meet is such a blur and you will forever look back on this day, whether the race was good or not. When you first step foot on the course, take a second to appreciate all the livelihood and activity at the park, and respect the dreams that have been realized for decades at Detweiller. Do so again when you leave. And if you are running with a team, enjoy your weekend with your teammates, and be gracious for the opportunity to go to battle with your teammates at the starting line, because not everybody has that opportunity.
Run fast, run smart, and run from the heart. I’ll be at Peoria this Saturday. Will you?