PAXTON — There will be bigger meets, and stiffer competition, but there won't be a more important step than the one taken on Saturday.
Unity's state-ranked boys' cross-country team and St. Joseph-Ogden's state-ranked girls' squad started the postseason with confidence-boosting regional championships.
"It's nice to have a good stepping stone," said Unity's Scott Woodard, the individual winner by 11 seconds in the boys' 3-mile race.
"It's always important to get a time up there so you know where you stand with everyone else," said SJ-O's Chelsea Blaase, who had a 26-second margin of victory in the girls' race at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School.
The Rockets had four of the top eight placers in the 13-school meet and edged St. Thomas More, which had four of the first 12 runners.
"People asked me whether I'd rather have a regional we can coast through or one we get a challenge and I said I'd rather get a challenge," said Unity coach Dike Stirrett, whose squad won its second consecutive regional. "We need to compete."
Woodard broke away after the opening mile and scored a personal victory by out-running nemesis Zeke Elkins, from St. Joseph-Ogden, whom he hadn't beaten this season.
"He normally goes out a lot harder, and I'm sure he'll be back," Woodard said.
Elkins placed third, finishing less than a second behind the runner-up, Schlarman's Jesse Hahne.
"This was very important for me," Hahne said. "If I don't have a good race, I keep my head down the next week. If I do well, I keep my head up and I'm ready to go. This motivates me more for sectionals."
Unity's five scoring runners entered the chute within 67 seconds of one another. Following Woodard, whose time was 15:50, were Doran Walsten (fifth), Colby Purcell (seventh), Kendal Eckert (eighth) and Austin Kramer (14th).
"We obviously have more important things ahead, but I told our kids this was important for our confidence," Stirrett said. "We needed to do this. They should all feel good. I'm very impressed."
Team runner-up St. Thomas More, the state's fourth-ranked boys' team, was led by Nick Hess (fourth). Other leaders for the Sabers were Sean Kelley (10th), Sam Powers (11th) and Jarred Koerner (12th). The top four finished within 59 seconds of one another.
SJ-O's boys ran third and Urbana Uni High placed fourth. The Illineks had a 57-second split between their top five runners.
Seven teams and five individuals not on qualifying teams moved on to the Decatur St. Teresa Sectional, where all of the state's top four rated boys' Class 1A teams will participate.
Hahne and Villa Grove's Adam Crutchley — returning from an injury which sidelined him for all but three regular-season meets — were the top individual qualifiers. Crutchley placed sixth.
"The injury set me back a lot," Crutchley said. "I felt like I was a shadow of myself, but with how it could have been, I'm glad I'm running."
Blaase opened up with a 5:45 first-mile split and shook everyone except Hoopeston Area's Lauren Houmes, who placed second. Blaase was timed in 17:52. Houmes finished in 18:18 and had an 80-second margin over the No. 3 runner, St. Thomas More's Theresa Welle.
Though she expected to do well, Houmes knew nothing was a given.
"I felt nerves before the race like I haven't felt all season," she said.
Blaase is anticipating the challenges that await next week in what has been called the state's toughest sectional.
"I love having competition," she said. "That makes it a lot more fun instead of being by yourself and wondering where everyone else is at."
SJ-O coach Jon Jamison, whose team more than doubled the score on runner-up Urbana Uni High en route to a fifth straight regional crown, had plenty of reasons to be happy.
Following team leaders Blaase and Alyssa Pridemore (fourth), the next four runners covered the 3 miles within 27 seconds of each other.
"Alyssa has been coming on strong, like last year, but we've been struggling to get them all together," Jamison said. "I told them at the mile I wanted those four together like they were attached at the hip."
The team's third runner was freshman Brittany Baker (seventh), who was running just her second varsity 3-mile race. She was followed closely by Jolee Paden (eighth), Loren Brooks (12th) and Veronica Brooks (13th). The Spartans' seventh runner, Jessica Kasuelke (17th) came in before the first runner from one sectional qualifying team and before the second runner from four squads which advanced.
Uni High's pacesetters were Sarah Vaughen (ninth), Jaki Vipond (10th) and Christina Harden (14th). The split between the top three Illineks was 24 seconds. Vaughen was the only top 10 finisher to not be in that position after the first mile.
"She had a bicycle wreck and hasn't run too many workouts the past couple weeks," Uni High coach Doug Mynatt said, "but she regained some confidence."
The top four teams in the boys' division were the same for the girls, just in a different order. Third-place St. Thomas More and No. 4 Unity also qualify for sectional.
The leading individual qualifiers were Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman's Megan McKee (15th) along with Rantoul teammates Aleah Combs (25th) and Hayley Bell (26th).