PAXTON – Runners from Hoopeston Area and Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac were individual winners in Saturday's 36th Paxton-Buckley-Loda Invitational, but competitors from Unity did the best job of moving up as the races progressed.
Justin Jones of Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac held off fast-charging Brice Dodds of Unity in the boys' 3-mile race.
Jones finished in 16 minutes, 31 seconds, beating Dodds by 12 seconds.
Hoopeston Area's Erika Ramos secured a 24-second victory over the girls' runner-up. Ramos was the race's only sub-20-minute runner, completing the redesigned course in 19:53.
A major sidelight was the way in which Unity's leaders worked their way up front.
Dodds was seventh after the first mile and third at the 2-mile mark.
In the girls' race, Unity's Emily Bickers was 15th after the opening mile and 10th after 2 miles. She placed eighth. In both races, Unity's leaders gained more positions than any other top 10 runner.
"I've told them to get good position in the first mile and move in the second mile," Unity boys' coach Dike Stirrett said. "The second mile is where it's most important."
Dodds' performance was particularly impressive, Stirrett said, because "there were some pretty good guys he didn't back down from.
"Is he capable? Sure. Am I surprised? Yes."
Jones and third-place finisher Nick Brehm of Paxton-Buckley-Loda matched strides in the first mile. In the middle mile, Jones made his surge.
When Jones saw the changes to the course, he wasn't sure what time to expect, so his goal was to improve on his 2006 finish.
"I was second last year, so I was hoping to win," he said. "I actually preferred the course the other way, but either way, I like the course and I'm not upset the sectional will be held here.
"I hope to build on this performance."
Seventeen schools sent runners. Eleven fielded full teams in the boys' division.
Kankakee Bishop McNamara took team honors (49), followed by PBL (58), Unity (69), St. Joseph-Ogden (97) and O/A-P (119).
PBL had three of the top eight placers in the 79-runner boys' field. Felix Cardosa was fifth and Tom Pacey eighth. Brehm believes the Panthers have a team capable of improving on last year's fourth-place showing at state.
"We want to keep getting better and go home from state with a trophy," he said.
Other area runners in the top 10 at PBL were Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman's Dalton Lorenzen (sixth) and Unity's Jacob Kraft (10th).
Hoopeston Area's Ramos might be the area's best-conditioned runner.
In addition to her daily workouts in cross-country, the junior is in her third year as a member of the Cornjerkers' boys' soccer team. She is a midfielder and played in a game Saturday afternoon.
"She has been working out like a machine," Hoopeston Area coach Rich Stipp said. "Her practice is a step up from a year ago.
"She's running with confidence, and she's running easy."
Ramos bettered the 20-minute barrier for the second time in three days and is 11 seconds away from last year's season's best, which was attained at state.
"One of the big things is her confidence," Stipp said. "It's almost like a different attitude. Last year, she was like 'I don't know if I can.' "
Now, Ramos expects to be within the lead pack.
"By the middle of the season, I want to be close to breaking my goal of getting down to the 18s (minutes)," she said.
St. Thomas More's Cara Feeney and St. Joseph-Ogden's Hannah Hogan finished within eight seconds of one another, placing third and fourth, respectively.
Salt Fork/Westville's Andrea Martis was seventh, followed by Bickers (eighth) and Shiloh's Emily Joines (11th).
Herscher won team honors with 37 points. Bismarck-Henning (89) ran third, St. Thomas More (94) was fourth and O/A-P (123) was fifth.