The Road to Peoria: The Debut of Verzbicas

The first of three regular season invitationals in Peoria takes place this weekend, as the Peoria Woodruff Invitational brings together many of the top ranked teams in the state to race on the state meet course. This year seven of the top 13 ranked boys teams and six of the top ten girls teams will take part. Perhaps the most anticipated part is the debut of freshman superstar Lukas Verzbicas, who will face Danny Pawola, Jeff Thode, Anthony Manfrin, Aaron Beattie and Indiana's Drew Shields among others.

Peoria Woodruff Invitational Preview

Boys Preview / Girls Preview

MileSplit National CC Rankings

MileSplit Regional Top 12 Individual Rankings

Illinois State Cross Country Rankings

Boys Preview

The starting line is drawn and many of the top teams and individuals in the start are ready to race. The annual Peoria Woodruff Invitational is loaded with talent this year on both the boys and girls sides, but the real story can be told in two parts.

The boys AAA field can't get much better. Seven of the top 13 squads in the state are scheduled to compete, including IL#1/US#7 Neuqua Valley. Neuqua Valley looked incredibly strong last weekend, beating a solid field of competition at the Hinsdale Hornet-Red Devil Invitational.  Not only did teammates Danny Pawola and Aaron Beattie go 1-2, but their next seven runners placed in the top twenty.  Few teams have shown this type of dominance and depth, so expectations should be high for this squad making their first trip to Peoria this season.

Behind them are teams like IL#4 Geneva, IL#7 Dundee-Crown, IL#9 St. Charles North, IL#11 Conant, IL#12 Lincoln-Way Central and IL#13 Waubonsie Valley.  Each team will look to make a statement, hoping to prove they are a team to look out for all season long.  Class AA powers Belvidere, Sycamore and Kaneland are all in the mix in their race, while Burlington, Iowa and Fishers, Indiana are two of the better teams in their respective states and will travel to Peoria to take part in the invitational.

The second story of the day may perhaps end up being the top story. The individual race is loaded with talent. Pawola is an obvious front runner, but the rest of the story adds a little bit of an interesting twist to the tale. Top Illinois sophomore Anthony Manfrin (Dundee-Crown) and top Illinois freshman Lukas Verzbicas (Lincoln-Way Central) are both entered in the field, as is Midwest #3 ranked Drew Shields (Fishers, IN) from Indiana.

The buzz surrounding Verzbicas is the top story of the season thus far. As one of the best incoming freshmen, if not the best in Illinois history, Verzbicas seems primed and ready to challenge everyone in the state, and has even declared that his goal this season is the win the state title. No male distance runner in state history has been able to accomplish that feat. Not Jorge Torres, not Don Sage, not Craig Virgin, not Jim Spivey. Verzbicas' talent is obvious, but how will he react when pinned against the best this state has to offer.

Shields is another interesting challenger. He is the first athlete in Indiana since the 1980's to win both the 800m and 1600m dash events at their state meet. Last fall he proved to be one of the best in the Midwest, but took an obvious step forward during the track season. Thus far he's shown he is the best in Indiana, which tends to mean he can match any of Illinois' top runners. Many have overlooked Shields' presence in the meet, but he can not be overlooked.

Other individuals such as, Beattie, Jeff Thode (Sr., Conant), Max Clink (Sr., St. Charles North) and Andrew Nelson (Sr., Geneva) will all be duking it out for a top five finish.


While much of the attention will be focused on the boys side, the girls AAA race is nearly as loaded with talent. Six of the top ten teams in the state are entered, including IL#1/US#10 Geneva, who look to build upon their strong showing last weekend at the Leavey Invitational. However, they will find challengers, including IL#3 Naperville North, who won the Pleasant Valley Challenge last weekend in Iowa, beating a strong Iowa City High team.

However, Geneva remains the favorite, especially after seeing just how well Sarah and Meghan Heuer performed, finishing as the squad's second and fifth runners. Up top, Kelly Whitley looks to go after the individual title, giving her squad a low number one scorer, while the rest of their top seven look to pack it up and run away from the rest of the field. It will be interesting to see how well this young team responds on the state meet course, being such heavy favorites.

Naperville North follows the lead of Michelle Stratton, who won the Pleasant Valley Challenge individual crown last week. North will need to split up Geneva's pack if they hope to upset. Other top squads include IL#7 Wheaton Warrenville South, IL#8 Wheaton North, IL#9 Woodstock and IL#10 Neuqua Valley.

WWS may run without a few of their top seven, while Woodstock has yet to debut Kayle Beattie, leaving them to take third place in smaller invitational last week. If Beattie is in the line-up, and 100% healthy, Woodstock is a strong challengers for top three. If she is missing in the results like the last two weeks, do not expect Woodstock to finish in the top five.