ST. JOSEPH — Jillian Plotner found out not long after leaving Effingham three years ago that she was dealing with a broken foot.
Logan Wolfersberger’s first season of high school cross-country began with a 3-mile time of 25 minutes, 19 seconds.
Malorie Sarnecki needed a strong performance in her last regular-season meet as a sophomore to crack the St. Joseph-Ogden girls’ postseason roster.
All three of these runners are integral reasons the Spartan girls and boys will race in their respective Class 1A state meets on Saturday — the former taking off at 9 a.m. and the latter 10 a.m. on Peoria’s Detweiller Park course.
These individual turnarounds aiding team success play right into a hashtag used on the#OthersFirst.
“A big part of that is thinking about your teammates,” SJ-O coach Jason Retz said. “Really just want them to think about their actions and their decisions every step of the way, everything that they do.”
Plotner, a senior, especially can relate.
She’s spent most of her prep career trying to get healthy enough to compete, battling numerous injuries and ailments along the way. That includes learning of her wounded foot after being the Spartan girls’ seventh runner as a freshman in the 1A Effingham St. Anthony Sectional.
Plotner looked on as her teammates won the 1A state championship a week later.
“If you knew me my freshman year and saw me through sophomore year and my junior year, I would say I was really depressed because I couldn’t run,” Plotner said. “I never wanted to hang out with any of the team. I never wanted to do any of the social events.”
But Plotner said she’s reversed her mentality, inspired in part by the idea of others first.
“Last year I let Kailyn Ingram run for me in the state track meet because I was super sick,” Plotner said. “That’s basically why (Retz) and I made up that hashtag, because it’s true. You have to put others first before yourself.”
Both Wolfersberger and Sarnecki felt the drive to improve as they saw teammates around them contributing to group success in ways they believed they could duplicate.
Wolfersberger, a junior, ran his first high school cross-country season last year. It came on the heels of his brother, Wyatt, putting together a solid career at SJ-O before graduating in 2018.
“I didn’t really like running before,” Logan Wolfersberger said. “But then, after seeing my brother succeed and the bond he got from the team, that just made me want to be part of this.”
But Wolfersberger admitted he couldn’t have imagined dropping quite so much time in just one year.
Remember Wolfersberger’s 25:19 inaugural prep clocking? That figure has plummeted as low as 17:34 this season, and he completed the 1A Effingham St. Anthony Sectional course last Saturday in 17:52 to serve as the Spartans’ No. 5 finisher.
“I just wanted to be part of the reason we could go to state and possibly do damage there,” Wolfersberger said. “It means a lot just to be part of that.”
Even if Retz completely missed Wolfersberger making this impact.
“During the sectional race, I actually didn’t see him one time because he was in a group,” Retz said. “He actually said that, because I didn’t yell at him or cheer for him, it kind of upset him that I didn’t recognize where he was at.”
Sarnecki hasn’t trimmed quite so much time from her freshman campaign to her ongoing sophomore outing — though going from 21 minutes flat to 19:54 is no joke.
What makes Sarnecki’s shift even more meaningful was that she spent a large portion of 2018 in a walking boot.
“That just really motivated me to push harder this year,” said Sarnecki, now fully healthy. “One of my goals was to run in the postseason, and now I’m doing that.”
Like Wolfersberger, Sarnecki landed fifth in the SJ-O girls’ pecking order at the sectional meet, via a time of 20:04.
That was after narrowly making the cut to be an alternate for the crew one season prior, just her third season of running cross-country after she started the sport in middle school.
“I have to trust the process,” Sarnecki said. “I had a lot of struggles with that in the beginning of the season, but now I’m kind of feeling it.”
That includes during the Spartans’ most recent 1-mile time trials earlier this week.
“She dropped 27 seconds off of her PR,” Retz said. “You can just see the confidence building as time goes on.”
Watching underclassmen like Wolfersberger and Sarnecki make such significant strides is as enjoyable for a senior like Plotner as actually getting to run herself.
Having all of these performances equate to some IHSA hardware would be a cherry on top.
“Hopefully we can get that trophy,” Plotner said. “If not, we know we all did our best.”