Chart toppers: State cross-country storylines, courtesy Fred Kroner

Chart toppers: State cross-country storylines, courtesy Fred Kroner

No. 1
Rocket girls readjust

It has been 13 years since Unity sent a full girls’ team to the cross-country state meet. A squad without any seniors set a return to state as a goal for this season.

Coach Gary Wieneke’s squad was successful last Saturday, with four runners posting their best 3-mile times of the season and a fifth missing her personal best by a second.

“Now we have to readjust (goals),” Wieneke said. “We’re shooting for the top 10.”

Freshman Taylor Renfroe, junior Laura Seiler, junior Sonya Walsten and sophomore Kenzie Dodds registered their best times at the St. Anthony Sectional. Sophomore Sisay Eisenmenger was close to her top time.

“They’ve been getting better and holding their own all season,” Wieneke said. “It has been a steady process. You have to gain confidence and being up (near the leaders) gets you the confidence.”

Unity placed third at invitationals at Chrisman, Paxton and Tuscola as well as at the conference and regional meets.

“They’ve been tough, steady, persistent and consistent,” Wieneke said.

Unity’s boys’ team advanced to state for the fourth time in the past six years.

No. 2
Spartans’ streak continues

For the sixth consecutive year and the eighth time in nine years, St. Joseph-Ogden’s girls’ team will run at state. Coach Kristin Allen has an all-underclassman unit. The top three SJ-O runners at sectional are in different classes: junior Alyssa Pridemore, freshman Abby Gawthorp and sophomore Jessica Kassuelke.

“I am extremely excited at where the girls’ heads are at,” Allen said. “They are all physically fit, but mentally they have been even stronger. This group of girls have an amazing chemistry with each other. They truly run for each other and have proven that at practices and the state series so far.”

Allen won’t make predictions for state because “that could potentially put a limit on what they are even capable of.” In the final Class 1A state rankings, SJ-O was one of four area girls’ teams listed among the top 20. Monticello was ranked second, SJ-O was rated 10th, St. Thomas More 17th and Unity 18th.

Pridemore is the team’s state veteran. She was on the 2010 squad that placed third at state. Kassuelke and another sophomore, Veronica Brooks, were also on last year’s state team, which finished seventh.

No. 3
Individuals move forward

Three individuals from Danville schools will compete at state without anyone else from their team. Schlarman’s Jesse Hahne is a Class 1A finalist. In 2A, Danville’s Johnny Leverenz and Mercedes Elliott will be in 3-mile races at Peoria’s Detweiller Park. Leverenz is seeking to become the second Viking (joining Rey Alvarez) as two-time boys’ cross-country state placers. He also is trying to become the school’s highest placer. The record is shared by David Moore (1952) and Jerry George (1972), ninth. Leverenz also has a shot at the school’s top 3-mile time by a junior (14:45 by Mark Chase in 1976).

Elliott could become the school’s second girls’ all-stater and the first since the distance was raised to 3 miles. Kapreia Kirk, a four-time all-stater, had a best finish of ninth in 1994 when the race was 2 miles. The fast pace at state could help Elliott lower her own school record (18:25).

Hahne was fifth at state in 2011, the best placing by a Schlarman athlete. “Jesse ran a great race (at sectional) and with his second-place finish got a lot of confidence,” Schlarman coach Ty Overstreet said. “Having one of the toughest 1A sectionals gave him a good idea of where he is at heading into state.”

No. 4
O/A-P freshman in contention

Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac cross-country runner Jon Davis didn’t show an overabundance of emotion at the Class 1A St. Anthony Sectional after he became the Comets’ first state qualifier since 2006. Davis placed 13th in a personal-best time of 16 minutes, 8.38 seconds, and the freshman was one of the top seven runners on non-advancing teams, good enough to make sure his initial cross-country season lasts until the final weekend.

“I’d like to tell you he was just jumping all over the course,” O/A-P coach Tim Lee said with a laugh when asked about Davis’ reaction. “I think he realized he kind of had a shot at it and kind of expected it.”

Lee said a goal of Davis’ was to make sure he stayed up front throughout the race with St. Thomas More runners, who helped the Sabers win the sectional. The move worked. “We tried to hang with the St. Thomas More pack,” Lee said. “He got beat by four of them ... but he stayed right with them. We thought if he hung around the 10th spot he’d be OK.”

Davis is the first Comet runner to make it to the state meet since Justin Jones in 2006 and will try to become the first all-state runner the school has produced since Ryan Wells in 1997. A top-25 finish at the state meet earns a runner all-state accolades.

No. 5
Unity boys make move

With five runners graduating from last year’s state runner-up team, outside expectations weren’t high this year for the Unity boys’ program. “I knew we would be very respectable because I knew from the start what these kids have in their hearts and heads,” coach Dike Stirrett said. “They are tough and hungry little guys. I get really excited each week that I see them compete. It seems that each week I keep thinking that we ran very well and I’m not sure that we can compete much better, and then the next week the kids come in and take it to a new level.”

Competing at the state’s premier 1A sectional (St. Anthony), the Rockets garnered one of the five team qualifying berths for state. It’s the school’s third consecutive state berth.

Stirrett praised the team’s two veteran runners, juniors Nick Godsell and Kyle Gateley, for what he called “outstanding leadership.”

Added Stirrett: “They have been through this two times before, and they have been really good models for our young kids to follow. We wouldn’t have done this if it hadn’t been for their leadership from Day 1. Everyone on the team has to display some leadership, but what a great example these two young men have been for the others.”

No. 6
Sabers ‘one of seven’

St. Thomas More has the state’s top-ranked Class 1A boys’ team, but coach David Behm said any of the top challengers could wind up with a trophy. “We are one of seven teams that could walk away with a trophy,” Behm said. “It is certainly a day to race, and whichever teams have a good day are the ones that end up on stage.”

Other leading contenders include Mount Zion, Rock Island Alleman, Shelbyville, Rochester, Monticello and Elmwood-Brimfield.

The Sabers have been preparing for these 15 to 16 minutes for years.

“Our guys have done so much hard work and dedicated themselves to this Saturday,” Behm said. “It has been their focus for the past two years. I want them to reach their dreams. If so, it shows what hard work and determination can do.”

Nick Hess is St. Thomas More’s front-runner, but at least three teammates could pack well enough to secure an all-state (top 25) finish: Jacob Helfrich, Sean Kelley and Sam Powers. Fifth runner Brendan Remington was within 24 seconds of his teammates at sectionals. “I think everyone will cut times off their personal bests,” Behm predicted. “We should see some big races out of all our guys.”

No. 7
M-S ‘rookies’ ready

Neal Garrison guided Mahomet-Seymour’s cross-country team to state last fall, but there’s something different about this year’s 2A qualifying team. “We have four runners that haven’t run at the cross-country state meet before,” Garrison said, “so we are just looking for a solid performance out of them more than a specific place.”

Matthew Chupp and Jackson Powell are first-year high school cross-country runners.

James Williams and Alex Keeble were junior high state qualifiers but will make their high school debuts at state.

They will be joined at the Detweiller course by state veterans Jonathan Schaap, Forrest Smoes and Ethan Russell.

“My main regret is that I can only run seven of our runners at the state meet,” Garrison said. “We have such a strong team that goes beyond just seven runners deep. They all sacrificed so much, and it is hard to know that only seven runners get the chance to represent the entire team.”

Eleven different squad members have posted 3-mile times of less than 17 minutes this season for the state-ranked (No. 7) squad.