2A Girls Pre-Season Preview: #20 to #11 stars standout

There are some very good teams here and the fact they are not mentioned in the top 10 means that this classification is real deep going into the season. Be as it may, it's only preseason and there is plenty of time to catch up and prove the pundits wrong.

*2020 Shazam XC Championship material


2020 Season Finish: 6th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Dan Daly
Key Returners: Ava Parekh (Sr.), McKenna Fellows (Sr.), Reese Benford (So.), Marin Creamer (Sr.), Quincy George (Sr.

Summary: Latin retains its multiplier and remains in 2A for the next two seasons after back-to-back regional victories, a 2019 sectional win, and the top-10 at state in 2019. This year is a significantly new look for the Romans, who flexed with a powerful frontrunner from the class of 2021 with Marianne Mihas, Bea Parr, and Olivia Syftestad. Only state favorite Ava Parekh and McKenna Fellows remain from the team that competed for a title the last two years, but the spotlight has camouflaged the great improvements from Reese Benford and Marin Creamer. Benford finally reaches the sub-20:00 barrier in mid-September, and Creamer showed mid-distance prowess in the spring with 5:40/2:33 performances.

A difference-maker for the Romans will be freshman Mia Kotler, who was the Shazam middle school champion in 2020 and the only athlete under 12:00 on that course (11:57). Coach Dan Daly explains where Kotler is entering the season: "Our current roster includes many new faces and we will learn how that plays out in the pre-season. But we know Mia Kotler, incoming freshman, will have an immediate impact and we expect her to be one of our top runners right out of the gate.  Mia was the middle school Shazam State Champion across all IESA divisions.  Her training is going well and she is ready to roll!" There are some questions worth asking about Kotler, such as where she will fall on the team compared to Parekh and Fellows and what it means for her training. Latin has more work to climb the ladder than it has the previous two years, but they are by no means out of the conversation. 

Daly on the team's goals for the year: "Our goals are always to perform at our best, stay healthy, and have fun. We feel our team, while again small, is strong. We are losing three impactful seniors but have some incoming freshmen who are strong and several of our runners, in spots six through ten from last season, have stepped up their summer training and we are very excited about their prospects. We will remain a small team given our school size and thus it is very important to focus on a slow build-up and remaining healthy."

2020 Season Finish: 16th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Brett Willhoit
Key Returners: Annie Ferrero (Jr.), Gwenyth Brickey (Jr.), Hope Ferrero (So.), Emma Macke (So.), Grace Moore (Jr.), Sabrina Godinho Dos Santos (Jr.)
Key Newcomers: Hadley Ferrero (Fr.), Bryn Matthaei (Fr.)
Summary: Coach Brett Willhoit looks back at Crystal Lake Central's 2020 season, during which the Tigers struggled to find consistency during a heavily interrupted meet schedule: "We had a lot of ups and downs. On the girls' side, the Fox Valley Conference is very competitive right now and we didn't have as strong of a season as we would like. But we finished strong and "qualified for state" by finishing 7th in the brutal Lakes Sectional."

The top-7 at Lakes is no accomplishment to sneeze at, and Crystal Lake Central gave a respectable performance at Shazam finishing 16th despite only finishing five runners with one runner at 26:48 for 5k. The Tigers' most significant loss is Kylie Smith, but her running mate Annie Ferrero returns with a great shot at all-state (her previous state finishes are 48th in 2019 and 34th at Shazam). Ferrero will be joined by sisters Hope and Hadley, as well as a young squad including Gwenyth Brickey, Emma Macke and Collette Bacidor. Hadley Ferrero is worth watching improve throughout the year--she finished 9th at the Shazam Middle School championships in 2020.

This is a team with potential for seven runners under 19:30, which will be necessary for them to break the glass ceiling in the Lakes sectional again. Willhoit keeps the teams' sights set on the immediate future for improvement: "Our goals for this season are the same as every season. I am looking for every girl to improve in their running performance and improve as a teammate and leader. We are hoping to be competitive in our conference and in our sectional."

2020 Season Finish: 15th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Jeff Bryant
Key Returners: Josephine Dziedzic (Jr.), Veronica Fuller (Jr.), Lola Feurer (Jr.), Caitlyn Fardy (Sr.), Katie Gillespie (Sr.), Fiona O'Toole (So.), Olivia Raemisch (Sr.)
Summary: Payton finished on a relatively high note during an up-and-down season that saw the Grizzlies struggle to get everything clicking all at once. The reins have been passed to Jeffrey Bryant for coaching this year, who will look to lead the team that returns their top-12 in 2021 to a Chicago Public League title and a Detweiller state berth.

The postseason saw Josephine Dziedzic lead the team most consistently, with Caitlyn Fardy and Lola Feurer leading closely behind. Keep an eye on Katie Gillespie, Olivia Raemisch, and Fiona O'Toole as well. Gillespie and Raesmich saved their best for last in 2020, running bests at sectionals. Gillespie was also the team leader in 3200 in the spring (12:16). How much noise can Payton make from the northside this year?

2020 Season Finish: 9th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Kelley Timmerman
Key Returners: Jaide Flowers (Jr.), Lacey Laxton (Sr.), Anna Snyder (Sr.), Jessalyn Belvel (Jr.), Joselyn Reisner (Jr.), Ella Toom (So.)
Summary: Track powerhouse Geneseo had a relatively quiet but productive cross country season where they improved from being unranked to finishing in the top-10 at Shazam. The Lady Leafs did this with a relatively tight split of 70-seconds off Esther Brown and Avery Magerkuth, both of whom graduate and lead behind a host of pack-running upperclassmen for Kelley Timmerman's Western Big 6 team. Jaide Flowers and Lacey Laxton enter as the teams' sub-20 athletes, but Anna Snyder, Jessalyn Belvel, and Joselyn Reisner are not far behind. A group of sophomores that include Madison Sims, Katlyn Seaman, and Emma DeBaene will hope to supplement a varsity team that will try to make a run at Quincy for the Western Big 6 conference win, and another qualification for the state meet out of the central Illinois sectional.

2020 Season Finish: 18th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Matt Haffner
Key Returners: Ella Hwang (So.), Megan Semmer (So.), Haley Rieckelman (Sr.), McKenna Ellis (Jr.), Lexi Noonan (Jr.), Haley Fitzgerald (Jr.), Reese Crowley (Jr.), Zoey Holland (Sr.), Annie O'Neill (Sr.), Elyse Fernando (Jr.), Curry Murphy (Jr.), Jordan Abdo (So.), Olivia Stern (So.) 
Summary: One year removed from a fifth-place finish at state in 2019, the Wolfpack struggled to put it together in the postseason--between frontrunner Lexi Affolter missing Shazam and some DNF's, Saint Ignatius finished 18th in the meet after aiming higher. "It was difficult to work together as a team with the flight format for all of our meets, says coach Matt Haffner. "Our #2 through #10 did a great job training together, but they weren't able to race together." With the loss of Affolter for 2021, the Wolf Pack will need strength in pack numbers to offset what appears to be a lack of low-stick. Meghan Semmer returns the team's best 3-mile time of 19:38, and Haley Rieckelman, Annie O'Neill, and Zoey Holland return as members of a state-qualifying 4x800 team (10:02). Holland and Lexi Noonan return from the 2019 state team as well (Noonan has the best lifetime 3 mile on the team of 19:12).

Two runners who could make large impacts for Saint Ignatius are Ella Hwang, who ran 5:14 for 1600 at the state track meet, and Haley Fitzgerald, who ran 12:02 in 3200 to qualify for state despite never running top-7 for the Wolfpack to date. Hwang is in the conversation for her first all-state performance. The Wolfpack may also look to a breakout from Elyse Fernando, who ran 2:20 to qualify for state in the 800. Saint Ignatius looks to be in the thick of a wide-open Chicago sectional. This team is deeper than most but will need some improvement at the front to climb the rankings.

15. Dixon
2020 Season Finish: 4th at 2A Lake Villa (Lakes) Sectional
Head Coach: Simon Thorpe
Key Returners: Emma Smith (So.), Emily Conderman (Jr.), Keeley Mick (So.), Layni Lappin (So.), Teyla Wendt (So.), Paige Riley (Sr.), Emily Smith (So.)
Summary: The Dukes had an unusual 2020 season, one that was difficult to evaluate from a distance. With nearly all their meets held at Sauk Valley Community College, and very small meets against inferior competition, seeing where the Dukes stacked up relative to the rest of the Lakes Sectional was difficult. Those questions were answered with their impressive showing at the sectional, finishing just six points out of second place and beating teams like Lakes and Shazam 3rd place finisher Grayslake Central.

Former all-staters Jade Miller and Paige Stees depart, leaving stud soph Emma Smith at the helm of a potentially strong squad, sporting an 18:33 three-mile best and running 5:21 in the spring before qualifying for 2A state in the 3200. Dixon's other sub-20:00 returners are Emily Conderman and Keeley Mick, and Layni Lappin, Paige Riley, and Teyla Wendt are close behind as well. This group of sophomores will have their hands full in-conference against Winnebago but are in a good position to extend their state qualifying streak.

14. Dunlap
2020 Season Finish: 5th at 2A Peoria (Notre Dame) Sectional
Head Coach: Chris Friedman
Key Returners: Morgan Phillips (So.), Saniya Mathew (Jr.), Faith Meghrian (Jr.), Morgan Catt (So.), Taya Zimmerman (Jr.), Abbie Gleason (So.), Maggie Diefenthaler (So.), Paige Acklie (Sr.), Abrey Conlon (So.), Swetha Yegappan (Jr.)
Key Newcomers: Abby Tudeen (Fr.), Kate Robertson (Fr.), Dakota Rousseau (Fr.)

Summary: Dunlap, a team that typically sports strong depth year-to-year, struggled with consistency throughout the 2020 season. "It was a rough season," admits head coach Chris Friedman. "We never got into a groove with any lineup due to, quarantines, injuries, and schedule conflicts. What I think the team took away from the season was a renewed appreciation for what cross country can and has been in the past. Hopefully, this translates into a tougher team that loves the sport just a little more."

The team is led by a front pack of three runners; Morgan Phillips, Saniya Mathew, and Abbie Gleason. Phillips led the team in track with an 11:42/5:26 season. Mathew, whose cross country best dates back to October 2019 (17:41) and was all-state that year, appears to be back in form after clocking 5:21 this past track season. Add Faith Meghrian to that mix, and the Eagles have a strong pack to begin with.

There are a number of different places they can look to round out the scoring mix, including Maggie Diefenthaler, Paige Acklie, Taya Zimmerman, Swetha Yegappan, or a number of strong freshmen. The frosh class is highlighted by Kate Robertson, who finished 16th for Dunlap MS at Shazam (12:34). Dunlap's depth is going to give the Eagles the most stable season they have had in the last couple of seasons. Friedman believes in his team this season: "If that pack runs well together and pushes forward, we will one of the best teams in the area. When we have been at our best, we have been 13-15 deep. We are that deep this season. We do need to prove that we can be consistent week in and week out, but I believe this team has the right traits to be a state contending team."

2020 Season Finish: 11th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Gene Jones
Key Returners: Katie Lalumandier (Sr.), Audrey Heil (So.), Alayna Ruach (Jr.), Lily Sturgell (Jr.), Audrey Hodgen (So.), Rachel Fisher (Sr.), Mallory Bennett (Jr.), Kayla Anderson (So.), Sydney Beccue (Sr.), Shealyn Terry (So.)
Key Newcomers: Adi Sparry (Fr.), Callie Sturgell (Fr.)
Summary: Legendary Metamora coach Gene Jones enters his 52nd season, and looks back at his 51st as one of the most unique. "[The 2020 season was] one for the books!" says Jones. "However, we got to run and that was super for the seniors. I have included our record for the season (six dual meet victories, and six dual meet losses)." The season was highlighted by a strong postseason, with a Mid-Illini conference win (a dramatic one-point victory over 3A team Pekin), a qualification for state in 4th, and 11th place at Shazam.

The top three runners from the conference title team all return: Katie Lalumandier, Audrey Heil, and Alayna Rauch. The three were neck-and-neck in the 1600m in spring (5:40-5:42 for each) and Heil ran under 12:00 for 3200. Lalumandier is the 4th returner in the Mid-Illini conference, and as a senior is a leader for this pack runnin' Redbird team. Lily Sturgell also returns a sub-20 minute 3 mile best. The pack behind these four will be comprised of Audrey Hodgen, 2:28 800 runner Rachel Fisher, and a number of others. Included in the mix are freshmen Adi Sparry and Callie Sturgell. Sturgell ran 12:12 at a 7th grader at IESA state in 2019 and could be an immediate impact runner.

What hopes does Jones have for the 2021 season? "Be smart and hope that we can get a more 'normal' season in for 2021," he says. "Many of the meets that young inexperienced runners can use to develop were not available to them last year. Those "new" runners and especially freshman last year will be getting some of that experience early this season that they did not get last year. Hope to develop that "pack" runnin' to achieve the goal of runnin' in November at Detweiller. I see our team as quite young but a competitive team for sure. The competition will help us to develop and hope that it all comes together with a very good State Series and being able to run in November at Detweiller!"

2020 Season Finish: 19th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Kelly Fox
Key Returners: Ashleigh Anderson (Sr.), Renee Ballard (So.), Emma Mallory (Sr.), Hailey Betzer (So.), Alexia Finch (Jr.), Ellie Fritzsche (So.), Brooke Doyle (So.)
Summary: The Mt. Zion Braves are a pack running team that withstands the lack of a front runner with a tight pack, and the return of plenty of depth from the 2020 team who won the Apollo Conference team title, finished runner-up at the Jacksonville Regional and grabbed a state-qualifying spot in 4th at the Richland County sectional.

Ashleigh Anderson is, more often than not, the first runner across the line for the Braves, and she is followed by a full returning varsity squad of Renee Ballard, Emma Mallory, Hailey Betzer, Alexia Finch, Ellie Fritsche, and Brooke Doyle. Ballard ran 12:20 in the spring and could move up through the pack, and Mallory and Betzer also logged sub 13:00 times. Anderson's 5:18 1600 was the best track distance-time logged in spring 2021, and she also ran 2:18 at Palatine Distance Night. This speed shows that Anderson belongs in the all-state conversation. Mt. Zion is a sneaky trophy contender because of the pack strength and potential for an all-state front runner and should be at the top of a competitive Apollo Conference once again.

2020 Season Finish: 8th at Shazam D2 Championships
Head Coach: Dan Gray
Key Returners: Maria Stedwill (Jr.), Eileen Zopel (Jr.), Teagan Cover (Sr.), Olivia Finch (Jr.), Maci Cave (Sr.), Olivia Munson (Sr.), Regan Ruggiero (Jr.)
Key Newcomers: Julia Mingus (Fr.), Grace Yontz (Fr.), Meghan Zopel (Fr.)
Summary: A young Peoria Notre Dame team is slowly becoming one of the more experienced squads in central Illinois, and a successful 2020 went a long way to set them up for a strong 2021. "With so many unknowns and variables going into last season, we had a hard-working, low-maintenance group of girls that made it easy to find a lot of success," says coach Dan Gray. "Our Irish ladies placed 2nd for the Big 12 Conference meet and were dominant in winning the City Championship with a perfect score, along with winning many of our smaller meets. The girls took 2nd place in a very competitive Regional, and our PND Sectional Meet, to qualify for Shazam XC Championships."

For the past two years, the Irish have been led by Maria Stedwill and Eileen Zopel. Stedwill finished 19th at the 2019 state meet and bettered her PR even further to 17:49 at the 2020 Peoria Notre Dame sectional on Detweiller's state course. Zopel's career has been less linear, battling injury in the recent seasons but still running in the 19-minute range over the last two years. A healthy Zopel will go a long way for the Irish to be a power in the division. A deep group of runners will fill in the pack behind them, where Notre Dame loses some seniors from last year. Regan Ruggerio, Elle Couri, and Teagan Cover contributed to the 2021 4x800 team that finished 9th for all-state. Maci Cave and Olivia Finch return from the top-10 Shazam squad as well. Notre Dame does well with making themselves relevant at the large meets during the season so don't be surprised to find the Irish jump in the rankings in mid-September, especially if their group of freshmen donates a contributor as they are accustomed to.

Gray on team goals for 2021: "Staying healthy, and injury-free will be a major focus, as we have only around 16-17 girls looking to run this season. We have good talent returning but need to define our new identity after graduating four runners from our Top 7 last year. Trying to regain the crown at the Big 12 Conference (against rival Normal Community) will be a fun battle. Beyond that, we seek to return to IHSA State, and shoot for some All-State performers."