Hampshire senior Cassie Kruse has enjoyed her share of success in the last year.
Kruse finished eighth in the Class 2A state cross country meet as a junior last fall and then followed that up with an equally impressive performance at the state track meet this past spring, logging a pair of third-place finishes in the 800 run and as part of Hampshire's talented 3,200 relay team.
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While the high finishes are fine and dandy, Kruse is hopeful those experiences will help take her to even greater heights this fall.
"I feel really prepared," Kruse says.
"I put in more miles than last summer and I came off a good track season. I'm ready for the cross-country season. I'm really excited for it. Cross-country and track last year have definitely helped me with my confidence. I had a good experience at the state meet (cross-country) last year. It was my first time and now I know what it's like and what the course is like. I've been through it. I know what it's like to run down there."
She also knows what it's like to tackle the strong competition locally.
"There are a lot of great runners in the area and in the big meets we go to," Kruse says. "Seeing those types of runners helps me a ton. It's like the state competition in those bigger meets. You are running against good competition and there are a ton of girls."
While Kruse put in ample mileage over the summer (mainly at an area forest preserve), she stuck to her familiar routine.
"Not too much has changed from what has worked in the past," she says. "I want to keep the momentum going. The goal obviously is to always drop time and win the race."
Hampshire coach Patti Nihells is impressed with how Kruse conducts herself among her teammates.
"Cassie is continuously working on raising the bar for herself and her teammates," Nihells says. "She is the one who leads by example. Cassie has put in the necessary mileage over the summer and is now working on speed and strength."
Nihells says Kruse possesses what she terms a "quiet confidence."
"What has always helped Cassie be a strong runner is her work ethic, her mental toughness and her desire to be the best," Nihells points out.
"Each year just builds on the successes from the prior years. She is one who definitely represents that "You get out of it what you put into it," "Only the strong survive," and "There is always someone better than you right behind you." That last phrase is the one that keeps her working hard."
Kruse is anxious to see what running against Fox Valley Conference athletes on a regular basis will be like. Hampshire is new to the FVC this year. The Whip-Purs are in the FVC Fox Division.
"I'm really excited about the new conference," she says. "I know I am going to be seeing a lot of different competition. It's going to be a change. I'm going to be in there with a lot of (Class) 3A schools. I'm looking forward to it and the team is looking forward to it. We like to be challenged. We're probably one of the smallest schools in the conference. We want to do really well. We would like people to know who Hampshire is. We're going to give it all we have."
When asked to reflect on the vast improvement she has made over her high school career, Kruse instead focused on the progress the Hampshire program has made.
"We all have come a long way," Kruse says. "Mrs. Nihells (Hampshire coach Patti) has worked with us a lot. We have pushed each other and have worked together to drop a lot of time. It's great to be able to run with them and run with them during the track season."
Kruse, who has her sights set on running at the collegiate level, is focused on dropping her times during the regular season.
"We run in a lot of the same meets we did last year," she says. "I want to keep improving my times."
Hampshire has a full team this year, which gives Kruse an additional goal.
"I want to help the team do well," she says.
In addition to Kruse, sophomores Elizabeth Pagan and Emily Eischen return. Junior Virginia Cano, sophomore Haley Linder and freshmen Bernice Tinajero and Natalia Sztuk Vel Sztulowski are new to the team.
"The nucleus of the team has put in their mileage this past summer," says Nihells, whose team has gone from 3 runners last year to 10 this year. "The team has been focused on pack running and it is coming together. The girls have a terrific role model in Cassie and aim to follow her lead. We hope to compete in every meet as a team and would like to qualify as a team. We are very young and will have to gain experience quickly if we are going to obtain those goals."
Fox Valley Conference
In the FVC Valley Division, Huntley took second in the FVC a year ago.
Seniors Sara Scarbro, Amy Kahl and Emily Kahl return, while sophomores Delaney Loprieno and Beth Parks will be in the lineup mix. Freshman Kelly Meehleib is a newcomer to the squad.
"We do have some depth," Huntley coach Brad Gallaugher says. "If we can learn how to consistently pack run, we can do some damage. There is some competition in practice. Competition breeds success."
Dundee-Crown was third in the FVC last season. Senior Allison Beck and juniors Natalie Himmel, ReBecca Libricz and Jade Franz return for coach Tom Smith. Seniors Guadalupe Machuca and Caitlin Emerson, along with juniors Carolyn Schneider and Kirsten Berlet headline a list of newcomers for the Chargers.
"We lost some key runners to graduation, but we have a good group back to build around," Smith says. "If the girls work hard and compete up to their ability, we could be very solid by the end of the year."
Smith feels the FVC Valley race will be a hotly contested one.
"As always, the girls will be very competitive and balanced," he says. "Cary-Grove is always loaded. Huntley is on a nice run. Jacobs is better. Prairie Ridge, South and McHenry will battle. It will be a contest all the way through."
Jacobs, fifth in the conference last year, returns seniors Aleta Wurfel and Heidi Heckenberg, along with junior Sam Baran and sophomores Kayla Giuliano and Tiffany Johnson.
Baran was 16th at last year's conference meet, while Giuliano was 19th and Johnson took 39th.
Coach Kevin Christian will welcome a strong freshmen contingent that includes Lauren VanVlierbergen, Courtney Eubanks, Molly Barnes, Amanda Pasetes and Taylor Bona.
"The team will be strong up front with Lauren (VanVlierbergen) able to run with the returning all-conference runners (Giuliano and Baran)," Christian says. "A large group of freshmen came out and will help fill the rest of the varsity spots."
Cary-Grove was sixth in 2010. Seniors Kathie Wollney and Paige Freund and junior Sarah Englund are back and will be aided by newcomers Anne McGarrigle (senior), sophomore Natasha Geiger-Powell and freshmen Talia Duzey and Gretchen Price.
"If we focus on ourselves, we'll be all right," Cary-Grove coach Mark Anderson says. "Right now, we look good in practice and I think we will be much-improved in races. We'll see how quick we stack up against other conference and county competition."
Crystal Lake South took eighth in the FVC last year. Seniors Sara Lejsner and Lauren Keogh are two key leaders for new coach Ken Greenfield. Junior Laura Biederwolf, sophomore Malgorzata Waz and freshman Kiley Britten will also help the Gators.
"I have high hopes," Greenfield says. "There is a lot of potential. We also have a lot of questions marks. How we improve throughout the season will determine how we do as a team. They have been running in a tight pack in practice."
In the Upstate Eight River Division, Elgin has its own team for the first time in several years. The Maroons and Larkin combined their teams in recent times.
Junior Fabiola Ortiz was a sectional qualifier last year. Sophomore Amelia Westberg returns as well.
"Our team functions on the idea that we are a family," Elgin coach Jon Miquelon says.
"The girls work hard to pick each other up and motivate each other to get better. This year we are really working on getting the girls interested in the sport and improving our times. I think we will be very competitive by the end of the season."
Heather Carey is the new coach at Larkin. The Royals return senior Amanda Lane and sophomores Yenitza Castillo, Jocelyn Salinas and Cynthia Pries. Seniors Allison Driskill and Kelci Hogue, junior Molly McDonough and freshman Elizabeth Alvarado are new to the varsity.
"They understand this is their team to take care of and to grow," Carey states. "I think they will improve with every meet and I think more than one of the girls has the potential to still be running after October 15."
Streamwood also is under the direction of a new coach in Denny Lau. Seniors Amanda Patterson, Alyssa Patterson, Jeanette Kirshenbaum, Jessica Kirshenbaum and Vianey Ortiz return, along with junior Crystal Prusek. Amanda Patterson is a two-time all-conference pick and took 19th at the sectional last year. Alyssa Patterson was 25th at the conference meet.
The Sabres, who welcome freshmen Gabby Juarez and Samantha Harding to the team, are coming off a second-place UEC River showing last year.
Lau says the Patterson sisters will anchor the top two spots of the lineup with Juarez and Harding -- both ninth-graders -- heading into the 3 and 4 slots with Prusek in the fifth position.
"Coming off second in the conference last year, we are setting our goals this year on winning conference," Lau says. "We also want to compete at the sectional at a high level and hopefully get our first opportunity as a team to qualify for state."
Lau adds the River Division race, in his mind is anybody's game.
"With all the seniors from last year's class gone, it is wide open for any team to clinch the conference," he says. "I really like our team's chances."
South Elgin lost only 1 runner out of its top 7 from a year ago. Sectional qualifiers Jordan Tuin (senior) and Abby Kenny (junior) are back, as are junior Casey Schoenborn and sophomores Elizabeth Nieto and Taylor Warrick. Junior Denise Alcantara and freshman Kirsten Kochan are new to the squad.
"We are strong in numbers this year," South Elgin coach Jorie Bartholomew says. "We are getting to the point where we are starting to maintain larger numbers. We have our top runner back (Tuin) and she is healthy and ready to race. Her drive helps the other girls run faster. I am hoping we will be competitive with the other schools in our conference and invitationals."
Elsewhere, St. Edward is paced by senior runner Audrey Danner. Senior newcomer Gabrielle Marsh and freshmen Christina Monsivais and Jordan Paz round out the Green Wave squad.
"Everyone seeks to establish personal best times this year and to continue to enjoy running and the camaraderie among teammates," St. Edward coach Kerry O'Brien says.
Westminster Christian features a youthful mix of freshmen and sophomores, while Harvest Christian Academy makes its debut as an IHSA-sanctioned program.