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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette UNI boys group at the Uni High Potluck Meet, at the U of I Arboretum Course on Tuesday, September 17, 2019.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette UNI boys group at the Uni High Potluck Meet, at the U of I Arboretum Course on Tuesday, September 17, 2019.

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Local runners from schools both big and small are impressing in the early part of the 2019 season. Preps coordinator COLIN LIKAS checks in with Uni High and Urbana’s programs:

Illineks prove small number no problem

URBANA — The IHSA website lists Uni High’s enrollment at 249.

Certainly not the lowest figure among state schools, but also not a particularly large pool from which to draw athletic talent.

And yet, coach Doug Mynatt’s Illineks are ranked No. 2 in the latest MileSplit Class 1A boys’ cross-country poll and No. 8 in the 1A girls’ rankings.

Mynatt’s boys are surrounded by the likes of Olympia (535.5 IHSA enrollment) and Monticello (511), while his girls are contending with foes such as Monticello, Unity (550.5) and St. Joseph-Ogden (467.5).

“I’ve been here for 25 years, and I really do think we have a fantastic running culture,” Mynatt said. “We typically get the kind of students that turn into good runners. They’re self-motivated, they’re self-determined, they’re very goal-oriented and they know how to focus on the challenge.”

If MileSplit’s ratings are any indication, that challenge is vying for a pair of 1A state titles.

The Illinek boys found themselves within shouting distance of the feat last year, when they placed fifth with a top seven entirely composed of underclassmen.

Senior Henry Kraatz, who sits third among local boys with a top time of 15 minutes, 34 seconds, and junior Aryan Lalwani (15:38) presently lead the charge, with Mynatt saying “on any given day, any given race, they can go 1-2.”

“(Kraatz) was pretty determined over the summer to make this a season to remember,” Mynatt said, “for himself and his teammates.”

A welcome boost for the Uni High boys came in the return of junior Alex Dolcos, who helped the Illineks to eighth in 1A as a freshman before jumping to soccer as a sophomore.

“He’s our number four, typically,” Mynatt said, “and, again, it’s nice to bolster that top seven, even top five, with somebody like Alex in there.”

On the girls’ side, the graduation of 2018 all-stater Anika Kimme hasn’t hit Uni High as hard as outsiders might assume.

That’s because freshman Kate Ahmari is an instant sensation, already jetting to the second-best area clocking at 18:06.

“It was expected,” Mynatt said. “I didn’t know to what extent ... how big of an impact she would have with area racers. I think she’s garnering some attention, and rightfully so.”

Danbi Choi, Erin Smith, Anya Kaplan-Hartnett, Maxine van der Donk and Cadi Hu fill out a tightly-packed group behind Ahmari — a group that could better last season’s 15th-place state effort from the Illinek girls.

“Looking at the preseason polls, for what those are worth, we didn’t have much mention,” Mynatt said. “I told everyone, I said, ‘I think we’re a top-10 team,’ and I think they’ve proven themselves to be worthy of that.”

The Uni High boys feel they can be a top-five crew once more in 2019. Or perhaps even better.

But there lies a significant challenge in gaining a foothold in 1A’s top echelon.

Reigning titlist Clifton Central raced six underclassmen at last season’s state meet. Third-place Monticello sent out five such competitors. And fourth-place Olymia fielded an all-underclass top seven, including three freshmen.

“We’ve got two runners that could finish all-state, if not more, if they do it right on the right Saturday at Detweiller (Park),” Mynatt said. “The guys, they’re aiming for a trophy — simple as that. Which trophy remains to be seen.”

Tigers making gains solo and as group

URBANA — Forrest Farokhi still recalls an email exchange he conducted with Mahomet-Seymour boys’ cross-country coach Neal Garrison prior to Farokhi taking over the Urbana distance program.

“He said it takes 10 years to build a program,” Farokhi remembered. “The current crop of coaching staff we have right now, we’re on collectively about year four, five or six.”

So not quite to 10.

But considering what happened in Charleston earlier this month, perhaps the Tigers are ahead of schedule.

The Urbana boys climbed to first place at the Sept. 7 Charleston Invitational, the Tigers’ 63 points slotting them just ahead of M-S and Centennial at 69 apiece.

Farokhi determined it was the Urbana boys’ first invitational victory “in over a decade.”

“We’ve done a good job of going back and looking through Urbana’s history and showing them where we stand as a team,” Farokhi said. “I’m not sure if they understood exactly what they just accomplished. ... But they were very excited.”

The Tiger boys still have a bit of work to do in order to snag their first top-10 state finish since 1966, currently rated 18th in MileSplit’s Class 2A boys’ poll.

But they’re off to a solid enough start, paced by sophomore Sam Lambert’s squad-leading top time of 16 minutes, 55 seconds, and close challenges from senior Jeremie Bokata (17:11) and sophomore Park Mitchell (17:11).

“We’ve definitely had that dance already in the first couple of meets where ... we’ve done a good job of keeping the packs together,” Farokhi said, “and if a teammate puts a gap on somebody else, the other teammate generally fills that gap later on in the race.”

Meanwhile, Olivia Rosenstein is posting times that would fight for a spot in the Urbana boys’ top seven.

The Tigers senior is the lone local girl below 18 minutes so far this year, zooming to a best result of 17:47.

Rosenstein is building off last May’s runner-up outcome in the 2A state track and field 3,200-meter run.

“She’s confident,” Farokhi said. “She’s definitely in (personal-record) shape. Her performances ... having such a large gap in that last mile, we’re not really sure where the chips may fall once she’s packed up with a different-tier group, but we’re excited.”

Another promising athlete on Urbana’s girls’ side is sophomore Celia Barbieri, who is parlaying a 2A 3,200 state qualification earlier this year into sub-20-minute times on the cross-country course.

“Her commitment and her day-to-day confidence and demeanor certainly changed,” Farokhi said. “She’s feeling really good about where she’s at.”

Same goes for the Tiger boys, even if they didn’t find themselves within the 2A state hunt last year.

In fact, Urbana didn’t send an individual beyond the regional round in 2018.

By a similar token, the Tigers went from fourth place in the Charleston Invitational last year to first earlier this month.

“The (assistant) coaches and I are looking through some of the data, and it kind of seems like it’s anyone’s game right now (in regionals and sectionals),” Farokhi said. “They know the task ahead of them is going to be difficult.”

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).