TUSCOLA — Heroes are not always easy to distinguish in an athletic competition.
It’s a no-brainer if a baseball player hits a walkoff home run or if a basketball player makes a buzzer-beating game-winning shot.
In cross-country, it’s more nebulous.
Monticello High had two unheralded runners emerge above the pack Saturday in what was the most historic day for the program. The Sages have won regional titles with the boys’ and girls’ teams and each has had two top-three state finishes since 2010.
Until a blustery Saturday, on a 3-mile course at Wimple Park, Monticello had never had regional-championship performances from both squads in the same year. But coach Dave Remmert’s two state-ranked teams achieved the milestone.
In the boys’ race, Monticello and Unity were in a dead heat after four of their five scoring runners had entered the finish chute. Will Montgomery, the Sages’ No. 5 runner, placed four spots higher than Unity’s No. 5 runner, accounting for the decisive margin, 59-63.
“We had guys step up,” Remmert said. “Will was one who kept the pack tight.”
The Sages’ five scoring runners completed their races within 62 seconds of one another. Unity’s top five were within 65 seconds of each other.
In the girls’ team chase, Monticello’s margin over St. Joseph-Ogden was 38-47.
“Where the race was decided,” SJ-O coach Kristin Allen said, “was their No. 4 runner (Audrey Duncan) finishing ahead of our No. 2 runner.”
Duncan was one of four Sages to place among the top seven. That group was within 37 seconds of each other.
“We challenged Audrey this week to tighten up the gap (between herself and the team’s No. 1 runner, Hannah Houska), and she came on very strong,” Remmert said. “The key to being a strong team is to ensure that your No. 4 and 5 runners are tied into the rest of the pack.”
Monticello’s fifth runner, Maggie Utgaard, is battling a shin injury and placed 18th. SJ-O’s fifth runner was 15th.
“Our girls ran well,” Remmert said. “It’s great to see them together.”
Duncan, who followed teammates Houska, Emily Foley and Maddie Tutich, was pleased to contribute.
“I’ve worked to get closer to Hannah, Emily and Maddie,” she said. “I believe hard work trumps talent every time.”
The Tuscola field was the strongest of any Class 1A regional. Four of the state’s top nine ranked girls’ teams were there as were six of the top 22 ranked boys’ teams, according to dyestat.com.
“We put on a great show, but we have a great challenge ahead of us,” Duncan said.
The individual winners were St. Thomas More senior Nick Hess (15 minutes, 25.27 seconds) and Uni High freshman Annemarie Michael (18:49.64).
“This is exciting and encouraging,” Michael said. “From the first race (of the year), I have improved, but I hope to improve more. My time wasn’t close to what I was going for, but the wind made it hard. I didn’t want to start too fast and be tired with this wind.”
Hess won by six seconds over runner-up Jon Davis of Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac. Michael’s margin over Houska was 11 seconds.
Strong winds, gusting more than 25 mph, prevented the times from being quicker.
Hess called it “a vicious headwind,” adding, “you had to be smart. There was a ton of great talent here, and when the wind was at your back, you had to try and put gaps on.”
Hess took control from Davis and third-place finisher Eric Ponder of Tuscola about 11/2 miles into the race.
“East Central Illinois has become a Class A powerhouse,” STM coach David Behm said, “and I love it.”
Monticello’s boys were led by Matt Norvell (fourth). The team’s next three placers — Jesse Galaway (10th), Zach Mesplay (12th) and Justin Furcich (14th) were separated by less than six seconds.
State-ranked boys’ teams moving on besides the Sages (No. 2) and Unity (third) were SJ-O (ninth), St. Thomas More (12th), Paxton-Buckley-Loda (22nd) and Uni High (15th) in addition to Tuscola. Joining the Monticello girls (ranked second) at sectional will be teams from SJ-O (fourth), Unity (fifth) and Urbana Uni High (ninth) as well as St. Thomas More, Hoopeston Area and PBL.
Class 1A at Shelbyville
Boys’ teams from Clinton and Argenta-Oreana advanced as well as Sullivan’s Clayton Waldhoff. Girls’ teams from Clinton and Sullivan advanced along with Argenta-Oreana freshman Cassie Meyer.
Class 1A at Bishop McNamara
Prairie Central’s boys’ team, led by fifth-place Brandon Allsup, was second. The Hawks’ girls’ team took fourth and also advanced.
Class 2A at Champaign
Danville’s Johnny Leverenz was the individual winner, but Mahomet-Seymour dominated the boys’ race at the UI Arboretum, placing five runners among the top 10. M-S had 25 points. Runner-up Central had 83.
Other area teams qualifying for the Decatur MacArthur Sectional: the fourth-place Vikings and sixth-place Centennial.
The M-S leaders were Alex Keeble (second), James Williams (third), William Wolf (fourth), Jackson Powell (sixth) and Ethan Russell (10th). M-S, ranked second in the state in Class 2A, has won three straight regional titles.
Urbana’s Carter Huff placed ninth overall and moved on.
In the girls’ race, M-S placed all seven of its runners among the top 16 and edged Mattoon 38-41 to win the Centennial Regional. M-S has won regional two of the last three years.
Mattoon had the top two runners, followed by M-S’ Lauren Whitehouse. Central’s Hannah Wright was fourth, followed by Danville’s Mercedes Elliott (fifth) and M-S’ Abigail Nielsen (sixth).
Area teams moving on besides M-S: fourth-place Central and sixth-place Danville.
Centennial moved three runners on: Rebecca Kaefring, Gabrielle Greaser and Brooke Miller. Urbana’s Fiona Munro also advanced.