Chris Setzler does not mince words with his thoughts on what this week means.
“This is really big for the program,” the Johnsburg boys and girls cross country coach said. “This is a turning point for us.”
The Skyhawks will head to Peoria on Saturday for the IHSA Cross Country State Meet, where they will compete in the Class 1A races. The cross country teams join the 2003 Johnsburg boys basketball teams as the only teams in school history to compete in state finals competition. The Skyhawks made the Class AA Elite Eight that season.
Johnsburg and Richmond-Burton both took advantage of dropping into Class 1A for cross country this season. R-B’s boys won the Lisle Sectional on Saturday and is one of the top-ranked teams by Illinois Prep Harrier; Johnsburg’s boys took third and the Skyhawks girls took second to also advance as teams.
Setzler has had All-State runners in Kelly McNeely and Dan Fox in recent seasons, but teamwise the Skyhawks had trouble competing.
“In the [Fox Valley Conference], we were the little fish in the big pond,” Setzler said. “Having the opportunity to go through the season running against the bigger schools, but then go to 1A sectionals was great for us. I really hope this helps us get more runners out.”
The boys have 13 runners this season, most of which are underclassmen. The girls have nine, which is far better than recent years.
“We thought we’d be more focused on doing it next season,” sophomore Jake Grimes said. “We knew our chances would be increased in 1A. It took a lot of hard work and we’re real excited about how it paid off. We’re excited about running in the big meet Saturday.”
Senior Kyle Stelmasek was second for the Skyhawks at Lisle. His freshman brother Matt was their first finisher. The other top runners – Grimes, Noah Miller, Jack Pockington, Dakota Merritt and Dominic Miraldi – are freshmen or sophomores.
At the FVC Meet, Setzler had them run in the freshman-sophomore portion so they could experience running out front and the Skyhawks won.
“That did a tremendous amount for their confidence,” Setzler said.
Grimes said they thought they would be fighting it out for fifth place and it might be tight. Then the Skyhawks found out they were pretty comfortably in third with 105 points. Westmont (121) and Niles Northridge Prep (168) were fourth and fifth.
Senior A.J. Conant remembers running as a sophomore and junior without seven members to have a full team (although five runners count in the scoring).
“In practice over the summer, one of our biggest goals was to go downstate,” Conant said. “This will give teams after us more confidence that they can go to state too.”
Sophomore Delaney Pruitt led the Skyhawks, taking fourth place Saturday. Conant was ninth and Shelby Weaver, who runs cross country to help stay in shape for soccer in the spring, was 11th. Sophomores Carly Wilson and Anna Fox were the other scoring runners.
In the 2014-15 school year, Johnsburg will move from the FVC to the Big Northern Conference, where it will go from the smallest to one of the larger schools, again allowing teams to compete more favorably.
That, along with the upcoming talent and moving to 1A should serve the Skyhawks well.
“I’m definitely excited,” Grimes said. “We’d like to build a bit of a tradition and send teams to state and win conference titles.”
R-B’s first: The Rockets’ sectional title at Lisle is their first in school history. They climbed to No. 2 in the rankings by Illinois Prep Harrier last week behind Champaign St. Thomas More.
James Kaht and D.J. Wolfram were fourth and fifth overall and figured second and third in the team standings (individual qualifiers are tossed out of the team scoring). As a team, R-B placed its five runners – Kaht, Wolfram, Ben Gardner, Aaron Spivey and Ryan Garrett – in the top 12.
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.