TUSCOLA – Urbana University High School has a long-distance project which is appropriate for its girls' cross-country team.
The runners understand there are no shortcuts to success in their sport and they literally run the path less traveled.
"Uni High students scatter to all corners of the world during the summer," said Illineks coach Doug Mynatt. "Sometimes it's tough to get everybody together for a workout, but the ones who knew they needed to work, got the work done."
The school wouldn't be ranked third among Class A teams or champions of the Tuscola Invitational, which took place Saturday at Wimple Park, had they slacked off during the offseason.
Michelle Mehnert is the leader of the pack, and Uni High truly features a pack on the heels of its frontrunner.
"Our 2, 3 and 4 runners could be any of three people," Mynatt said. "That makes for good practices and quality workouts. There's never a sense of anybody feeling bad about one of those teammates beating them."
In the 116-runner varsity race, Mehnert was fourth, covering the 3.1-mile course in 19:59.
"She is always in a state of training," Mynatt said. "She works non-stop."
The Illineks' other leaders were Elizabeth Russell (fifth), Shivani Khanna (sixth) and Elaine Gu (eighth). Uni returns all of its top runners from last year's regional and sectional championship squad.
"Last year, we sort of sprung onto the scene," Mynatt said. "Midway through the season, there were probably not a lot of people looking for us to be a factor in the state series."
Uni High finished fourth at state. The expectations are different for this season.
"Especially with Rockford Lutheran (third in Class A in 2006) moving up a class and the fact that we didn't lose anybody from the varsity, gave us reason to be optimistic," said Mynatt, who has a 10-runner girls' team. "Last year opened their eyes to their potential."
Those hoping to catch up to the Illineks this season take heed: Uni High is not yet at full speed.
"Samantha Nguyen tore an ACL last winter and is on the comeback trail," Mynatt said. "She's a little off the pace but is working hard to get back up there."
Jennifer Roloff competed in the team's first two meets but has sat out two weeks while recovering from an injury.
"Our Nos. 1-4 runners are probably as strong as a team can be around here," Mynatt said. "Now it's a matter of finding a fifth. With Jennifer out, maybe someone else will step up."
On Saturday, Uni High's fifth runner was Isaure Hostetter, who placed 20th.
"Our 1-5 split was 1:54, which was better than anything we had last year," Mynatt said.
Other area runners besides those from Uni High in the top 15 were Tuscola's Lindsay Trioke (seventh and the top freshman), Tuscola's Liz Anderson (13th) and Monticello's Kelsey Hardimon.
Central A&M followed the Illineks in the team chase. Uni's score was 39. A&M had 66.
Monticello was sixth, Tuscola seventh and Villa Grove eighth. Twelve schools fielded full teams.
Josh Clark led three straight Monticello runners across the finish line, placing second in 16:08 and helping the Sages capture team honors. Clark ended 1 second behind defending state champion Matt Feldhake of Effingham St. Anthony.
Chasing him were teammates Brent Rhodes and Alan Hollingsworth.
Monticello edged Freeburg 65-68 in the 21-school invitational.
Other area runners among the top 15 were Unity's Brice Dodds (sixth) and South Piatt's Jesse Gifford (10th). There were 149 finishers.
Clark (15:47) and Rhodes (15:55) both had their career-best 3-mile splits.
"That makes me feel good, but what makes me feel better is the team," Clark said. "We had a breakthrough."
Monticello coach Jeff Butler lauded the efforts of Clark, Rhodes and Hollingsworth (whose 3-mile split was 16:02).
"Those three ran with determination," he said. "They ran well."
Clark said the Sages are focusing on a season-ending goal.
"We want to get to state as a team," he said.
Monticello's other scoring runners on Saturday were Jack Foley (25th) and Petey Biddle (35th).