2023 Distance Night In Palatine Preview

Dan Watcke pulls away from the field in 2022 for his second straight DNIP 800 title. Watcke, however, will not be defending his title, opting for the Mile this year. Photo by Mike Woolery.


Cross country junkies and distance fans of the state of Illinois, rejoice! It's still six months until we reunite for the cross country state championship in Peoria, but this Saturday, we will all converge instead at 1111 N. Rohlwing Rd. in Palatine, IL for the seventh running of Distance Night in Palatine. Few other meets in the state are as sure of a bet to produce trademark, iconic moments as Distance Night has proven to give over the last half decade and beyond. Just as exciting is this is the third edition of the Live Stream production that MileSplitIL will be providing fans in absentia beginning with the Undercard Races at 5:30 pm and concluding with the Girls' and Boys' Championship Mile sections at 9:41 pm and 9:50 pm. 

How can you possibly make sense of all the incredible storylines to follow? Well, you can start by following our comprehensive preview here. Also, don't forget to check out the preview show as well. Let's get to it!

Distance Titans of Differing Strengths Clash in the Boys' Mile

It's not often the top-two rated Premium 25 Boys are both distance runners, and it's even rarer to include two runners that have had such different paths to the top than Ethan Hogan (Jr., Columbia) and Dan Watcke (Sr., Hinsdale Central)

Tell anyone in the state six months ago that Watcke would become an Indoor National Champion in the 800, and few would be surprised. Watcke has become a bonafide star in the half-mile with DNIP wins for the past two years, as well as an individual state title and numerous legendary anchor legs for Hinsdale Central. Brett Wasick's upset win over Watcke at state in 2022 was so notable because Watcke had been installed as one of the heaviest favorites across the whole meet, a well-earned title. Such is why Watcke was the top-rated Boys' individual this season. 

But who had expectations for Hogan, the sixth-place finisher at the 1A State meet in XC? Few aside from Hogan himself, who cites the training consistency he has built over the past year-plus as his magic bullet, saw this track season coming. The junior from downstate Columbia made his way to the same New Balance Nationals meet that Watcke attended, and became the first IL runner to break 4:10 in the full Mile with a 4:09.92, good for eleventh across the full field. This was a revelation because Hogan had never run faster than 4:30 prior to 2023. And how about his 9:43 3200 PR entering the season? Well, Hogan laid a jackhammer to that at Arcadia, running 8:49 for the fastest 3200 ever by an Illinois runner at Arcadia, and the second-fastest time by a junior in the 3200 behind only... Craig Virgin. 

The Boys' Mile at DNIP 2023 gives the state the treat of seeing Watcke and Hogan meeting in the middle, a match that the multi-class system of the state of Illinois prevents during the postseason. It's the tried-and-true speed vs. strength matchup. Does Watcke stay in touch with Hogan long enough to unleash a kick? 

Incredibly, the defending champion, Gavin Genisio (Jr., Benton) doesn't even get a mention until this point of the preview. Genisio became a dominator of the novelty Miles in Illinois by winning DNIP (4:16) and Magis Miles (4:09) during his sophomore season. Genisio pulled away in the final meters at Palatine last year and will certainly want to defend his crown, especially after a highly-billed match with Hogan at Top Times did not quite come to fruition as Genisio lost touch with Hogan early in the 3200 and did not contest the 1600. 

The winner is likely one of these three superstars but the rest of the championship field does not leave one for want at all. 

The winner of the 2021 freshman mile, Marcellus Mines, has had a career filled with tumult during the two years since his trademark win over Nate Wehner (Highland Park) and Camyn Viger. Mines' track and XC seasons have been mixes of equal part great runs and injury absence. However, he looks to be in good form already having run 4:18 this season and is the fourth seed in the Mile championship field. 

Viger is also in the field, coming off a duel with Liam Newhart in the 3200 at SmithStrong that became relatively tactical in the early stages of the race. Viger came out on top in 9:13, closing hard against the XC runner-up. Newhart did make another appearance that day by winning the 1600 in 4:24. Viger is much more raced in elite situations this season than Newhart thus far, but both seem equally prepared to make runs at top-3 spots in this race.

Two weeks ago, Trey Sato (Jr., Grayslake Central) did not have the seed time to make the fastest section of the Mile. He took matters into his own hands at Stevenson on April 13th and ran a 4:16.35, mostly solo, to jump to the top of the state leaderboard and gain a ticket to dance in the championship section. Sato won the 800 at the 3A Top Times meet and has already run 1:53 this season during a breakout junior track campaign. 

Naperville Central's duo of Luke Noren (Sr.) and Foster Shelbert (Jr.) represent two prime candidates to mix up the favorites' chances. Noren used this race a year ago to submit himself among the shortlist of 1600 contenders in the state despite being relatively unknown at the time. Shelbert, his high-ceiling teammate, has made his mark throughout the season with big kicks in competitive races and should be considered by other athletes a dangerous competitor if he is close late in the race. 

Tommy Murray (Sr., Riverdale) and recent Purdue signee Quintin Lowe (Sr., Batavia) round out the deep group at the front of this pack that best looks at forming the front pack. 

Bode Erickson from Stevens Point, WI highlights the other Main Event Mile race over Illinois stars Parker Nold (Sr., Oswego East), Grayden Rill (Sr., Fenwick), and Nicholas Strayer (Jr., Lyons). Theodore Cunningham (Sr., Fremd) has been quietly on the rise all track season and is just as legitimate of a contender to take this section. Watch for two sophs, 2022 frosh mile winner Jacob Barraza (DeKalb) and Carter Hayes (Palatine) to make some jumps as well. 

Girls' Mile Will Prove to be a Worthy Prequel to the Boys' Race

In their own right, the Girls are poised to put together just as deep and competitive of a Mile, with (nearly) all of the major players at this distance coming out for the event. 

Anna Harden (Sr., Hersey) finished fifth at Batavia Distance Madness behind winner Grace Schager (Sr., Glenbard North). Harden got a measure of revenge by outkicking Schager and emerging freshman Annika Swan (Saint Ignatius) to win the 3A Top Times 1600 race in a huge PR of 4:52.83. Harden managed this despite Schager's best attempt to neutralize any kicks by making a hard push with 900 meters to go, dipping into her strength as an aerobic runner.  This is likely Schager's blueprint for attacking the Mile and will be making her way to the front in the early to mid-stages of the race at Palatine as well.

Schager may not need to take the pace out early, however, with Scout Storms (So., Barrington) in the field. As the top seed in the field, Storms, last year's runner-up as a freshman, has the fields only sub-4:50 1600 performance this season from New Balance. Storms has already defeated Harden this year at the MSL Conference meet and stuck it to Schager in the 3200 early in the indoor season before Schager pulled away in the second mile. A year ago, Storms bussed from Glen Ellyn, where she won the Sue Pariseau 3200 in 10:41, to Palatine for her 4:50.8 1600 SB. Will Storms do that double again, or will she leave her legs fresh for this race?

What will the rapidly improving Swan bring to the race? With the fourth seed at 4:53.82, Swan sports a fresh 2:12.9 800 best as a sign that she might have the wheels to make a kick happen against the older girls. She has not had the trademark win against elite Illinois competition yet but is poised to strike and perhaps make Palatine the first signature win in her young career.

But these four and the rest of the Illinois contingent need to be wary of Elyse Wilmes, a sophomore hailing from Fr. Tolton Catholic in Columbia, MO. Although 'just' the fifth seed, Wilmes sports by far the best 800 PR with a 2:08.99 third place from the 2022 Festival of Miles, and a 56.96 400 best from her freshman year. If the field doesn't separate from Wilmes early, DNIP may see the first Out-of-State Mile champ for either gender.

Catherine Sommerfeld (Sr., Lyons) and Mia Pasha (Sr., Warren) enter as the other sub-5 seeds in the field. Ahry Comer makes her annual trip from way-down-south Golconda, IL to mix it up with the upstate, large-class competition. In her first-ever track season, senior and recent Vanderbilt signee Colette Kinsella (Nazareth Academy) leveraged the 2A Top Times field to garner a 5:05 1600 best and make the fastest Mile section. 

This will also be the biggest race thus far for Juliet Frum (So., Glenbrook North), who lost momentum from a breakthrough XC season due to injury during indoor. She is back and put a 5:08 on the board to get into this championship field. 

Olivia DeLuca (Jr., Maine South) is the top seed in the second section, trailed closely by hometown freshman star Monika Urbaniak (Palatine). Urbaniak was the IESA 1600 state champion and is now quickly getting back to that form in the spring. 

What is the Ince Plan in the 800?

Only one athlete has two different meet records: Ali Ince (Jr., Normal Community) with her 800 2:04.10 from 2022, and her 4:46.84 1600 from 2023. 

Rather than defend the Mile crown with the deeper field, Ince has elected to return to the 800, where she has the fastest seed by over six seconds (2:03.17 from Arcadia this spring). The 2022 champion Becca Heitzig (Jr., Lincoln) is next with a 2:09.90 mark from Festival of Miles. 

How will Ince attack this race? With considerably cooler conditions and a thinner field than Arcadia, CA provided her the first April weekend, re-setting her own all-time state best seems like a tall task. With her recent fast 800's opening in 60-61 second 400's, Ince runs the risk of simply being a rabbit for Heitzig, also a quick starter, and having defeated all other Illinois competition in this event over the past two years. 

Heitzig told us back in March that she is eyeing 2:06 as a goal in the 800 before the end of the season. There is plenty of formidable 2A competition to help push her during the postseason, including many in this very race, but Palatine will be an acute opportunity for her to race with her eyes on a competitor. 

Colleen Zeibert has given Heitzig all she can handle in recent weeks, as the two have produced remarkable times in duels at both 1600 (4:53-4:59) and 800 (2:11-2:12). Zeibert returns to Distance Night for the first time since 2021, where she ran 2:19.

Speaking of the other 2A runners in the 800, city runners Gabi Walker (Jr., DePaul College Prep) and Lulu Ton-That (So., Northside) figure to be major players in the chase pack. In an event where athletes whittle away at their PR's, Walker has taken chunks off her 800 best two seconds at a time, most recently running 2:15.08 at her indoor conference meet. Ton-That ran 2:16 quite early in the season but just now returns from a track hiatus related to her competitive gymnastics season. 

Alyssa Moore (Sr., McHenry) broke out during the 2022 season and is a centerpiece of an improved McHenry squad. She finished third at 3A Top Times in the 800 with her 2:15 person best.

Don't forget Rylee Lydon (Sr., Prairie Ridge) in this race! The multi-event specialist for Texas A&M now races her second fresh 800 as she tours each of the heptathlon events. She ran 2:15.83 to win the 800 at Batavia Distance Madness and can better her heptathlete superscore with a big-time Saturday at what figures to be her last 800 of the season.

The penultimate 800 section is headlined by Sofia Munoz (Sr., Mt. Zion) who anchored the Braves to a 4x800 state championship last May. However, keep your eyes on Sophia Ramirez (Fr., Washington) whose 2:20.01 seed places her in this section but has run as fast as 2:16.45S indoors.

Bandukwala leads an intriguing 800m with a varied host of athletes

Aden Bandukwala (Jr., Hinsdale Central) is a unique XC state champion, given his entry in the 800 at DNIP is unsurprising as he certainly feels most at home in that event. 

Bandukwala ran 1:52.29 at the 2022 Nike Outdoor Nationals, which makes him the fastest seed by a full second over Caleb Levy (Sr., Warren). Levy's time is much more recent, however, coming in a very competitive race at Arcadia where Levy managed second in his section. Levy is one of the most fearless 800 runners in the state and you can book that he will go right to the front of the race in the first 200. 

This race also brings the two characters from the best head-to-head 800 race of the indoor season, Landan Gillespie (Sr., Kenwood) and Michael Polizzi (Sr., Taft), who finished just .01 apart at the indoor CPL meet. Polizzi has not even contested an 800 since this race, while Gillespie has raced often already with his team in a busy outdoor invitational schedule. Even with the other runners in the field, these two will be keeping a watchful eye over each other. 

Julian Aske (Sr., Beacon Academy) won the penultimate section of the Boys 800 at Palatine last year before grabbing the runner-up 1A spot in the event at the state meet. He is the Top Times 1A champion for this year and he gets a crack now at the most elite competition in this event he will see, sporting a 1:55.58 best from indoor. 

Mt. Zion has been a highly-rated team all season with a well-balanced attack and Sam Atkinson (Sr.) is a huge reason for that. Atkinson runs every relay that the Braves need him to, but he is an elite 400 and 800 runner in his own right and he will wear the 6 bib. At top times he finished behind Patrick Hilby (Aurora Central Catholic), also in this race, who is incredibly only a junior having been an elite 800 runner now for three years already. 

Sandburg teammates Trent Anderson (Sr.) and Grant Giblin (Jr.) both will appear in the fastest section of the 800, so watch for how those two run, as well as their finishing marks when projecting Sandburg's potential in the 4x800 for this season. 

O'Fallon soph Zach Thoman, Belleville West 800 winner, leads the penultimate section, which also features sprint star Jackson Gilbert (Sr., Urbana H.S.). Gilbert has already run 10.81 and 21.63 this season and ran 47.48 to win the 2A title in 2022 over Jayon Morrow. He ran 1:57.79 outdoors last year, what can he manage against the distance folk Saturday night? 

Wide-Open 2 Mile Fields are Anyone's for the Taking

The fanfare surrounding the Mile this year resulted in thinner Two-Mile fields for DNIP, as evidenced by the slower marks to make it into the meet (12:51 for girls, 9:58 for boys). This didn't diminish the intrigue of the races, however, as the competition is air-tight in both races. 

The closest to a clear favorite in either 2 Mile has to be Rachel Soukup (Sr., Prairie Ridge), headed to Belmont University in Nashville next year with her 10:22 3200m best. This time came from the best challenge anyone has given Grace Schager in the 3200 this year from IL (except Tatum David), and Soukup is primed to front-run now and try to match or exceed that indoor mark. Audra Soderlind (Sr., Oswego) was also in that race and kept contact with the other two for over a mile, and she leads a chase pack headlined by some of the elite, young, downstate talent Illinois has to offer.

Molly Farrell (Fr., Marshall) has risen to the status of 'star' quickly for the Lions. She took home the 1A Top Times 3200 title in 10:56 and then bested that mark for a 10:49 3200m in a head-to-head with Tuscola frosh Kate Foltz. This significantly deeper field will give Farrell the chance to beat an elite pack like she made a habit of doing during the XC season. 

She heads up north to Palatine, as do the Frosh-Soph Normal University duo of Natalie Bierbaum (Fr.) and Zoe Carter (So.), both sub-11 girls and one of the two pairs of teammates in the race along with Naperville Central junior duo Ava Hendren and Liv Phillips. Watch too for Jane Lynch (So., Loyola), who has improved quickly during this track season and has one of the few sub-five 1600 performances in this field. 

If you are trying to predict the winner of the Boys' Championship Two-Mile, that is more of a jumbled mess. The first fourteen seeds all have times within six seconds of each other. New Trier star sophomore Ben Crane's 9:18 is the fastest, but Plainfield South teammates BJ Sorg (recently signed with North Central College) and Dylan Maloney (So.) are right behind. 

Just to be safe, let us state that winner will likely come from the group of: Dylan Ybarra (Jr., O'Fallon), Mario Torres (Sr., Buffalo Grove), Oscar Dueno-Alda (Sr., New Trier), Oliver Burns (Sr., Plainfield North), Vijay Krishnamoorthi (Sr., Conant), Dale Johnson (Jr., Sterling), Josiah Hortin or Jackson Barrett (both Jr., Tuscola), Mac Kittrell (Sr., DePaul), and Joe Schwartz (Sr., Waterloo), as well as those mentioned above. 

A notable omission from the boys' championship heat is Dylan Myers (Sr., Lake Zurich), the fourth-place 3A finisher in XC in 2022, running sub-15 in the slosh. He has 'only' run 9:33 so far this season, but he is an obvious 'positive' regression candidate to run a competitive time out of the second section. He will definitely be pushed by Will Kozlowski (Jr., Chicago Lane Tech) who is coming off a 4:19 Full Mile performance at Arcadia. 

Record Watch? 

Here are the records for DNIP and whether they are in Jeopardy of being broken: 

racemarkin jeopardy?
Boys Main Event 16004:08.64Major Record Watch
Girls Main Event 16004:46.84Likely safe for another year
Boys Main Event 32008:57.78Safe.
Girls Main Event 320010:13.91Likely safe for another year.
Boys Main Event 8001:52.72Record Watch
Girls Main Event 8002:04.10Yes, if Ali Ince goes for it!
Boys U/C 16004:17.34Likely safe for another year.
Girls U/C 16004:59.88Quite unlikely this year.
Boys U/C 32009:17.44Safe.
Girls U/C 320010:57.66Safe.
Boys U/C 8001:55.61Will be difficult be possible.
Girls U/C 8002:12.83Perhaps the safest record. This one is ridiculous.

Also: the freshman boys' meet record is 4:26.43. You can bet that the duel between Alex Krieg (Palatine) and Owen Horeni (Yorkville), who just ran 1:56, will push that meet record to its brink.