TOLONO — It can be difficult for a high school team’s incumbent athletes to mesh with program newcomers.
Coach Kara Leaman’s Unity girls’ cross-country squad isn’t experiencing that issue heading into Saturday’s Class 1A St. Teresa Sectional at Forsyth’s Hickory Point Golf Course. But if the Rockets were struggling to connect behind the scenes, a recent spontaneous team-building exercise would have put that to bed.
“Last week, Coach sent us out on a 5-mile easy run, and I was like, ‘We should play the chalk game,’” freshman Olivia Shike said. “Basically this is a game where you trace your path and you’re supposed to follow each other.”
Shike and some of the other girls eventually desired to turn this relaxing event into more of a competitive venture.
Only natural on a team that has captured two Class 1A state championships and five state trophies in the last five seasons.
“We’ve got to find objects, so we split into two teams,” Shike said. “One of these teams had my team pick up these two ginormous sticks — like branches on a tree. And we had to run around with them and bring them back to the school.
“So we decided to decorate the sticks the next day. And then we brought it to our meet at regionals, so we call it kind of like the lucky stick.”
That’s because Shike and her cohorts secured the Class 1A St. Teresa Regional title last week by outlasting Illini Prairie Conference rival Monticello, the reigning 1A state runner-up.
“The goal was honestly to try to beat Monticello,” freshman Caelyn Kleparski said. “It was kind of a stretch, but we all knew in our hearts we could do it.”
Leaman’s crew is carrying significant momentum into the season-ending sectional as a result. And since no IHSA state meet will be held because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rockets want to finish 2020 at the top of their sectional.
Multiple freshmen will have a say in that outcome.
Ninth-graders Shike, Kleparski, Erica Woodard and Bri Ritchie all will toe the start line Saturday at Hickory Point. The first three members of that quartet were involved in the regional display as well.
They’ve formed a potent synergy with the likes of seniors Taylor Joop, Elizabeth Hulick and Caroline Bachert and junior Malia Fairbanks, which is especially important this week. On Tuesday, Unity entered a two-week remote learning period because of positive COVID-19 tests at the high school, causing the Rockets to forgo multiple team practices leading up to the sectional.
“They all have a desire to win,” Leaman said. “From the word go they have been ready to come and train hard. ... They all know what it takes to step up to the next level.”
That was evident at the 2019 IESA 2A state meet, in which Unity Junior High eased to the top team spot by scoring 50 points to runner-up Chicago Latin’s 130. Woodard (third place), Shike (14th), Kleparski (16th) and Ritchie (33rd) finished within the team’s top six at that particular race.
Woodard and Ritchie also ran at the Rockets’ 2018 IESA state appearance, which ended with a team victory. And all of these girls were sixth-graders when that outfit produced yet another first-place performance.
“It’s nice to get to help the team out,” Kleparski said. “I didn’t really think I would be racing varsity my first year. But I guess it happens and I did. We all did.”
Woodard not only is part of the Rockets’ varsity lineup, but she’s regularly been its No. 1 finisher. The latest example was at the regional, in which Woodard took fourth with a time of 18 minutes, 21 seconds. Only five of the regional’s 89 athletes crossed the finish line in faster than 19 minutes, and Woodard was the only Unity participant to do so.
“It’s very strange because I’ve never really been the number one runner. So this whole season was like, ‘Woah, I’m first? What?’” Woodard said. “It took a lot of getting used to, to be ahead of the pack and not in the pack. Very stressful.”
Of course, none of this would have come to pass had the IHSA not conducted some sort of fall campaign amid the pandemic. Ritchie said she harbored legitimate concern about her first prep season’s cancellation.
“COVID’s definitely affected the season,” Ritchie said. “But it’s still slightly more exciting than middle school.”
“Slightly” might ramp up to “much” if Saturday’s sectional pans out in the Rockets’ favor.
“We’re going to treat it as our state meet,” Ritchie said. “We have a lot of seniors that still have another race to go, and we want to make sure they have a good finish to their careers.”
Here’s a look at where local cross-country runners are competing at Saturday’s sectionals, which will end the IHSA season with no sanctioned state meet being conducted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:
Class 2A Richland County Sectional
Where: Olney Central College, Olney
Local girls’ participants: Mahomet-Seymour (team); Bella Ramshaw (Jr., Centennial); Brooklynn Sweikar (Fr., Centennial); Maaike Niekerk (Jr., Champaign Centra); Allison Thompson (Soph., Danville); Phoebe Gerstenecker (Sr., Urbana).
Local boys’ participants: Champaign Central (team); Mahomet-Seymour (team); Urbana (team); Aaron Hendron (Soph., Centennial).
Class 1A St. Teresa Sectional
Where: Hickory Point Golf Course, Forsyth
Local girls’ participants: Monticello (team); St. Joseph-Ogden (team) St. Thomas More (team); Uni High (team); Unity (team); Gabriella Moreman (Fr., Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin); Aleigha Garrison (Fr., Judah Christian); Allie Morris (Soph., Oakwood/Salt Fork); Macie Russell (Fr., Oakwood/Salt Fork); Tori Turnbaugh (Soph., Sullivan).
Local boys’ participants: Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond (team); Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin (team); Monticello (team); St. Joseph-Ogden (team); Unity (team); Dylan Howell (Fr., Cerro Gordo); Eli Johnson (Sr., Chrisman/Georgetown-Ridge Farm); Josiah Hortin (Fr., Tuscola); Ray Jones (Sr., Uni High); Henry Laufenberg (Jr., Uni High).
Class 1A Harvest Christian Academy Sectional
Where: Harvest Christian Academy, Elgin
Local girls’ participants: Paxton-Buckley-Loda (team); Addison Seggebruch (Fr., Cissna Park); Allison Pickett (Jr., Hoopeston Area); Samantha Hartke (Soph., Iroquois West).
Local boys’ participants: Paxton-Buckley-Loda (team); Connor Price (Sr., Iroquois West).
Class 1A Elmwood Sectional
Where: Maple Lane Country Club, Elmwood
Local boys’ participant: Ethan Black (Sr., Clinton).