CHAMPAIGN — Alex Ahmari was going to be the centerpiece of the 2020 Champaign Central boys’ cross-country team no matter what.
Now a senior, he finished 35th at last year’s Class 2A state meet.
But what sort of group would surround Ahmari wasn’t as clear.
The answer: a pretty good one, even if the Maroons haven’t received many opportunities to strut their stuff.
First-year head coach Steven Kesler’s crew had the majority of its planned regular-season schedule wiped out because of IHSA guidelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. So Central is “still working toward where we need to get to,” according to Kesler.
“They’ve responded well. These guys, they’re grateful to have the season,” Kesler said. “They were very excited (Wednesday) when they heard we have an opportunity to advance to a sectional meet.”
That was afforded by the IHSA Board of Directors in addition to an already-planned regional round of running.
It’s especially good news for someone like Ahmari, a News-Gazette All-Area second-team selection last year.
“You want to give him opportunities to go compete against other top runners on fast courses,” Kesler said.
Kesler is hopeful those chances are on the horizon with the Twin City Meet at Dodds Park on Oct. 6 and the Big 12 Conference Meet in Peoria on Oct. 16.
“We’re still kind of waiting to get everyone firing on all cylinders,” Kesler said. “The guys are keeping their eye on the prize, and they sort of realize that it’s more important what they’re doing a few weeks from now ... in terms of their performance marks.”
Kesler, who previously assisted former Maroons coach Argie Johnson, presently is working with a roster of 26 athletes. That’s up 10, according to Kesler, from last season as the loss of a fall boys’ soccer campaign has sent some of those athletes to distance running.
Sophomore Peter Smith has become the Maroons’ No. 2 runner, Kesler said, as senior Quinn Kolodziej deals with a hip injury. Senior Jake Seraphin, junior Victor Smith, sophomore Cooper Sweet and freshman Fynn Bright also are making positive strides for Central.
“It’s just different this year trying to compare their times (to those of last season),” Kesler said. “Hopefully in a few weeks, when we get to run for conference ... we’ll have everybody healthy and ready to go.”
Sages get closer to full strength
MONTICELLO — Dave Remmert’s Monticello boys’ cross-country outfit hasn’t spent a single day completely healthy this season.
That’s not even considering the preseason losses of reigning News-Gazette All-Area first-team pick Luke Sokolowski and Morgan Dixon, two big pieces of the Sages’ Class 1A state championship effort last year.
Senior Josh Baysore, another defending N-G All-Area first-teamer, has dealt with an ankle issue for a large portion of 2020. Paired with junior Ed Mitchell’s back injury and junior Jackson Grambart’s foot woes, it’s evident Monticello has seen better days on the health front.
But Remmert sees good news coming Saturday, when the Sages head to St. Joseph for the Spartan Classic.
“I’m really looking forward to this weekend ... (when) we’ll have our top-four runners back into action, so to speak,” Remmert said. “I’m kind of waiting to see what happens.”
With seniors Shawn Derby and Joey Wenke also in that mix, Monticello is getting closer to reaching its full potential this fall.
Baysore has impressed with his ankle in better shape. At a meet last weekend in Olney, Baysore placed third with a time of 15 minutes, 13.14 seconds.
“He’d improved about 30 seconds in one week. ... Over two weeks, it’s been around 50 seconds,” Remmert said. “It’s kind of foreign to me being as old as I am and seeing how quickly these kids can get in shape. It’s pretty remarkable.”
The Sages’ rash of injuries also has provided useful varsity repetitions for sophomore Jacob Elston and freshmen Rylan Good and Charlie Hill. All three finished between 16:47 and 17:30 at that Olney race.
“They’re younger runners, and they’re just getting started with high school cross-country in many cases,” Remmert said. “So I’m kind of excited about the opportunities that have been afforded to them.”
Roster growth bolsters Comets
FITHIAN — Phil Surprenant knew he’d coach one returning runner on his 2020 Oakwood/Salt Fork boys’ cross-country team — junior Ethan Brewer.
But he wasn’t sure how many athletes he’d have surrounding Brewer.
“I’ve had a lot of struggles trying to get kids out,” said Surprenant, also Salt Fork’s boys’ track and field coach. “And so to have our numbers kind of balloon this year is positive.”
Surprenant is up to 10 boys’ cross-country runners this fall, a side effect of football and boys’ soccer moving to the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It stinks in general. Obviously a lot of those kids want to be out playing their primary sport,” Surprenant said. “But it’s helped out our program quite a bit.”
Surprenant was fortunate on the boys’ side that a two-week in-school absence for Salt Fork, which kept Storm athletes sidelined for that period after four positive student COVID-19 tests, didn’t dramatically affect his varsity lineup.
And that lineup is full of athletes vying for the top seven positions.
“There’s a lot more competition that’s flowing among these guys,” Surprenant said, “especially when we get football players and then basketball players who are used to uber-competing.”
Surprenant said some of his most impressive newcomers are senior Eli Ronk and freshman Alec Harrison, the former already a distance runner on Oakwood’s track and field team.
Comets cross-country is readying for its most important regular-season stretch. It begins with next Saturday’s Oakwood Invitational, a nine-team meet, at Kickapoo State Park. That’s followed by the Vermilion County and Vermilion Valley Conference meets at the same location later in October.
“It’ll be good to have kind of a sense of normalcy,” Surprenant said. “We’re going to get real comfortable running against those teams and running on that course.”