CHAMPAIGN — Nick Hess is a leader.
On a cross-country course, it’s obvious. In most races, he’s the runner others are attempting to catch.
The St. Thomas More junior was the top area state-placer, finishing third in Class 1A while helping the Sabers win the team championship.
Hess’ teammates will vouch that The News-Gazette’s Male Cross-Country Runner of the Year possesses leadership qualities that extend beyond the ability to set a fast pace.
“In a world full of distractions, Nick is a true moral guidepost in our lives,” STM senior Sean Kelley said. “I know whenever I have had struggles in my own life, Nick has always had positive advice for moving forward. I can trust him with anything.
“As a person, Nick possesses qualities that the rest of us can only try to emulate. Out of respect for the kind of person that Nick is, it is very easy to follow his lead on the team.”
Hess gets it. He realizes that a me-first mentality doesn’t often put a team on the road to success. Those who contend cross-country is an individual sport don’t see it through Hess’ eyes.
“To me, being a leader meant not always doing what I wanted, but doing what was best for the team,” Hess said. “I was very fortunate to have such competitive and great runners on the team.
“They pushed me just as hard as I pushed them. There were some races that it was in the best interest for another teammate to capture the win.”
St. Thomas More coach David Behm said the sacrifices Hess made go past a willingness to be well-rested and sticking to a 9:30 p.m. bedtime during the season.
“Nick has been so selfless and so concentrated on getting the team to be at the highest level, he often has given up personal accolades to others,” Behm said. “For example, if you look at the Twin City trophy, you see Sean Kelley in 2011 and Jacob Helfrich in 2012.
“Nick could have won each of those but thought that having his teammate on the trophy and getting the spotlight would help the team.
“It was a turning point this year for Jacob. Winning that race and having his name on the same trophy as his brother (Jeff) gave Jacob the confidence to push himself back into the All-State runner he had lost trying to recover from a long injury.”
For Hess, it was sportsmanship without fanfare. He didn’t back down on race day. Instead, he challenged teammates to match his pace and made sure that effort carried into the finish chute.
“Jacob was coming off a foot injury and was finally healthy and ready to go,” Hess said, “but he was having a tough time getting his head back in the racing mentality and getting that mental toughness back.
“The Twin City race was the turning point for his season. As a team we decided to pack it up and run together. As we were pushing the pace, some of the guys started dropping off, except Jacob. He hung with me the whole race and we finished together. That win was important for Jacob. He got his mental toughness back and we got to see the ‘old’ Jacob that we were used to having on the team.
“Sometimes you have to throw out individual desires. Jacob getting the win was in the best interests of the team. It got every guy motivated to do big things. Being a leader is more than just being a talented runner. It is all about making sacrifices for a greater goal.”
Helfrich said the team’s respect and admiration of Hess is due to his work ethic and ability to get others to match his effort.
“In races, 99 percent of the runners have a couple of bad races here and there,” Helfrich said. “Nick never does. He is Mr. Consistent. He’s a hard worker and always the one that makes sure we finish the workout, and finish it hard.
“He never lets the team cut a workout short. When it’s time to get focused, he’s really zeroed in on the task at hand. He always sets the tone. Nick’s like a brother to me.”
For a few fleeting hours as a freshman in 2010, Hess wasn’t a cross-country runner at all. He enrolled at St. Thomas More after attending middle school at St. Malachy in Rantoul. Cross-country wasn’t a sporting option in seventh or eighth grade. In track, Hess spent most of his time hurdling and high jumping.
“My freshman year was my first ever running cross-country,” Hess said. “I was a little unsure of it at the start.”
His first impression wasn’t a favorable one.
“I actually quit after the first day of practice,” Hess said, “but I rejoined a day later once I finally came to my senses.”
Now that he is accustomed to the 3-mile race, Hess isn’t as fond of the shorter distances.
“The way I see it, the longer the better,” he said. “Cross-country really suited me best. I enjoy the longer distances.
“They are very challenging, but very rewarding in the end.”
Though it took five scoring runners to account for the point total that enabled the Sabers to capture the school’s first cross-country state crown, Kelley said Hess was the starting point.
“Our team was successful this year because of the positive influence Nick placed upon us all,” Kelley said. “Each of our individual successes would not have been a reality had Nick not been there to show us the way things need to be done.
“Each one of us on the team went through awful slumps, but Nick was there to make sure we kept our heads up and stayed positive.
This year’s results are a testament to how well he did that job.
“When it comes to staying positive, Nick has made every effort possible to better the team, even if it meant letting one of us pass him in the last 50 meters for the win. Nick values each of his teammate’s successes as much as his own and that is why we have been able to accomplish the things we have this year. When it comes to running, Nick Hess shows us all what it takes to be successful.”
Though Hess is appreciative of the top runner award, he said if he had a vote it would have gone elsewhere.
“I am honored to have this recognition, but I know there were two or three guys that were more worthy of this recognition,” Hess said.
“They worked just as hard as I did and I think, without a doubt, they deserve just as much recognition as I am getting.”
His individual recognition may not subside soon. Of the top 11 Class 1A state-placers this year, Hess was the only non-senior. The next closest underclassman was 11 seconds behind him.
Seniors Kelley and Helfrich are upcoming graduates, but they don’t expect Hess to coast into next season.
“He has such a devotion to the sport, and a ton of potential,” Helfrich said. “He is undoubtedly the favorite to be an individual champion next year, but he won’t let that get to his head.
“He will be focused and ready to give his best effort. He’ll be more focused on where the team will finish and that’s just a testament to who he is as a person.”
Getting to know Nick Hess
Why he’s Boys’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year: The PBL Regional champion placed third individually at state, the best finish by any area runner in any class, and led the Sabers to the Class 1A team title.
Season’s highlight: The two-time all-state runner was the only underclassman in the top 10 in Class 1A, running the 3-mile course at Detweiller Park in a season-best 15 minutes, 1 second.
A few of my favorite things: Beef tenderloin and twice-baked potatoes ... Galen Rupp ... “The Dark Night Rises” ... Adam Sandler ... Buffalo Wild Wings ... Randa Harshbarger ... A black 1997 Ford Mustang ... On my bucket list, to go skydiving, to go to Hawaii and to attend the Olympic Games.
About Hess: “What makes Nick Hess spectacular is the genuine and caring personality that he possesses. He spends every waking moment with us and he is committed to seeing each of us be the best person we can be. When he eats healthy, so do we. When he makes sure to get enough sleep, so do we. When he rolls out of bed for a morning workout, we grumble but then put on some shorts and join him. Nick is the positive influence that enables us to give our all.” — Sean Kelley, St. Thomas More senior.