Unity's title-winning cross-country crew mostly intact for next act

Unity's title-winning cross-country crew mostly intact for next act

TOLONO — Kara Leaman's athletes showed off their silly side prior to a Unity girls' cross-country practice last week.

Sharing jokes. Dancing to music playing over the stadium speakers at Hicks Field, the Rockets' home football venue. Relaxing in the light rain falling just five days before the start of another school year.

The Rockets' racing opponents shouldn't be fooled, though: This is essentially the same crew that captured a Class 1A state championship last season. Perhaps an even better group.

And when it's time to run, the kids in Unity maroon and white display a laser-focus level of intensity.

"It doesn't come from me. It comes from them," Leaman said. "There are a lot of girls on this team who are just naturally competitive. I think together they're just that much stronger in what their strengths already are."

The Rockets begin their title defense — for the second time in three campaigns — Sept. 1 at the Cow Chip Classic in Chrisman. Since Leaman took control of the program ahead of the 2015 season, Unity has a pair of state championship and a runner-up result to its name.

"Since we know what it feels like to be on top, we know what we're working toward," said senior Jordan Harmon, who placed 21st at the 1A state meet last November. "So that gives us motivation to all work together."

Graduating just one of its 2017 state finishers, Unity holds a legitimate bid for a running dynasty in east central Illinois.

Harmon is a big part of that. So is sophomore Caroline Bachert, who paced the Rockets by crossing the line 13th last year at Peoria's Detweiller Park.

"I was one of the young people (in 2017). I guess I was expecting to run (well) and help the team," Bachert said. "But I wasn't really expecting to win state. I was hoping, but we had a good chance."

Joining Bachert and Harmon at the line this season are sophomore Evelyn Atkins (25th at state), junior Kylie Decker (46th), senior Audrey Hancock (70th) and senior Miranda Fairbanks (85th).

"We are really close as a team," Bachert said. "We're really comfortable around each other. We talk like we're sisters."

And that's not even the scary part for Unity's foes. Instead, it's that Leaman still hasn't determined a set-in-stone scoring unit — even with those six girls in the fold.

"It's up in the air who our top seven is actually going to end up being," Leaman said. "We had up to about nine who were interchangeable toward the postseason (last year). But this year, we're even deeper in that area of the team."

In some situations, battling for top billing could disrupt a team. That's not the case with these Rockets.

"(We're) competitive in a good way," Harmon said. "We definitely need each other to push each other. The fact that we can't decipher who our top seven is right now is really good."

Though Harmon is returning from a femoral neck stress fracture that wiped out her latest track and field stint, Leaman is facing few other concerns with her youngsters.

Frequent positive outcomes over the last three years have made it easy for the Rockets to zone in on what needs to be done to procure similar results.

"Our focus is solely on the postseason," Leaman said. "I really haven't heard them talk much about feeling pressured. I think they need to just focus on the here and now."