Four years ago, Burlington Central boys' cross country coach Vince Neil had an interesting telephone conversation with Rockets standout runner Clint Kliem.
"Freshman year, I was on the phone with him for an hour-and-a-half to even get him to come out for cross country," Neil recalls. "Now he's one of the top athletes in Class 2A. He has a pretty cool story."
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Indeed he is. In the span of four years, Kliem has gone from reluctant participant to a runner that finished 10th at the Class 2A state meet a year ago and is poised to make an even larger splash on the big picture this fall.
"The kid is a workhorse," Neil says. "The way he studies the sport and the way he prepares is incredible. I have to budget 2 ½-3 hours for him for practice because he does all of the little things that make him good such as the stretching and the icing. It's amazing the time he puts into this. He has progressively gotten better. He has some lofty goals this season. The potential is there and the mindset is there and the preparation is there. I've never had anybody so dedicated to the little things. He sees the big picture."
Kliem says he put in the usual amount of work he always does in the off-season. It's an investment that has turned out to be time well-spent.
"I had a pretty good summer," he says. "I am definitely stronger this season than I was last season. I'm a little more confident coming into this season because of my times this year compared to times last year. My overall strength is better. I feel like I am a lot more powerful and more ready to take things to the next level of running where I feel comfortable. I'm building my endurance. I've been doing a lot more workout-oriented stuff. Hopefully this will all produce the results and we'll go from there."
Last year's finish at the state meet had something to do with the confidence factor.
"Knowing that I could be in contention for the top spots this year definitely keeps me motivated," Kliem says. "I'm focused. I'm looking toward the big goal at the end of the year. I know there are other fast kids out there. Class 2A is going to be very competitive, but I definitely think I can be in the mix with those top kids."
Kliem also has taken a different mental approach to this season.
"It's not just trying to finish up in the pack at a meet. I should be trying to finish first every meet," he says. "It's the mental attitude this year. I want to go out hard and stick with a hard pace. I'm not the type of runner that goes out slow and then hope I can get past everybody. I have to stay up with the group and try and hang on with them. I tend to have a good kick. When I have to push harder, I push harder."
Kliem enjoys the challenge of going up against the top runners in the area, region and state.
"The better competition there is, the better results you will have," he says. "I would love to race kids every day that are faster than me. You are only going to improve. That's another motivation. If you go up to the line knowing there are kids as fast as you or faster, it gives you that extra kick start. You want to beat those kids, so there is another motivation."
Kliem figured he might be onto something with running back in the eighth grade when he broke five minutes in the mile.
"I wasn't one of the runners freshmen or sophomore year that got crazy good," he says. "I've had a steady progression throughout the years. I didn't make huge leaps. It was more a gradual success. If it can continue senior year into college athletics, that would be great."
Kliem definitely wants to run in college. He says college coaches are looking for times in the 14:40s or 14:30s. He ran 14:57 at the state meet last year.
"I'm right there," he says. "I know I can do it. It's just a matter of time before I get there. I would love to get into the low 14:40s and even get into the 14:30s. I definitely think it's possible. It will take a lot of dedication and eating right and doing everything correctly to get up to a point where I can achieve that. It's definitely there for me."
Neil's Central squad features three-time state-qualifier Kliem, along with Joe Gannon and Mike Gulik (both track state qualifiers). Freshmen Clay Musial and Kyle Nuebauer also will help the Rockets, who are fresh off winning the program's first conference title since 1986.
"We have some strong front-runners that can give us a nice low score," Neil says. "The key will be where the pack can close the gap. Our weak spot last season came in our broken pack."
Neil feels Richmond-Burton will challenge his squad for the top spot in the East Division.
Fox Valley Conference
In the Fox Valley, Dundee-Crown took second in the FVC last year, but graduated its top 12 runners. Top returning runners for the Chargers include 2010 junior-varsity runners Eric Martin, Chris Hamilton and Robbie Tonge. Seniors Dillon Muscat and Mario Sanchez, along with juniors Tommy Halverson and Trevor Vogler also will help.
"We are a junior-dominated team," D-C coach Tom Smith says. "We will gain experience as the season goes. We will get used to the training required and learn to race and compete as a varsity team as the season moves forward. This is great group of guys with great attitudes."
Jacobs is coming off a third-place conference finish from a year ago. Senior William Hennessy, who took eighth in the FVC, is back, along with classmates Anthony Ott and Trevor Tschosik and juniors Ryan Ross and Pat Nerja. Key newcomers include sophomores Zach Johnson and Matt Johnson, along with freshmen Matt Goldby and Sebastian Baran.
"It will be nice to have William running with the top runners in the conference, but the real strength will come with the pack," Jacobs coach Kevin Christian says. "Ryan and Pat are looking to have strong seasons and move up in the pack in conference. The rest of the runners behind them will also be up there. We need the boys who won the FVC frosh-soph meet last year to step up and be solid varsity runners."
Jacobs has 42 runners in its program.
Crystal Lake South, which took eighth in the FVC last year, returns seniors Brian Roesslein, Ryan Wolf, Nick Pieczonka, Zach Awrey and Luke Wajrowski, along with juniors Duncan Henderson, Ian Meador, Joe Coughlin and Will Davis. Sophomores David Lenzini and Connor Hudak are new to the team.
"We do not have a standout front-runner, but we should have a good pack of 6 to 8 runners," South coach Rich Eshman says. "How our pack runs together will determine how our season goes."
Cary-Grove returns senior Dustin Fullerton, along with juniors Dan Sikora, Dustin Throw and Ryan Adams from last year's team. Throw was a sectional qualifier in 2010. Sophomores Clay Marunde and Charlie Price, along with freshmen John Cody, Dylan Richards and Michael Saxon are new additions to the team.
"We had a solid group of young runners last year who will now be making the move to varsity," Cary-Grove coach Layne Holter says. "This is a competitive group that will battle all year for the top varsity spots on the team, which should make us a much-improved team late in the season as the young runners gain varsity experience and confidence. We have an outstanding nucleus of young runners to work with who show great promise."
Huntley returns juniors Sam Marcuccelli, Trevor Obecny and Ricky Lopez. Junior Jacob Augustine and freshman Ricky Raclawski are key newcomers for the Red Raiders.
"This year's team has great chemistry and knows how to motivate each other," Huntley coach Matt Kaplan says. "The trio of Sam, Trevor and Ricky will lead the varsity in the right direction. All of them have strong leadership skills."
Prairie Ridge is the favorite in the Valley Division.
New FVC Fox Division entrant Hampshire returns juniors Ross Seaton and Alex Pagan from last year's team. Freshmen Max Oury and Jacob Serio will help as well.
"We have a small team so being tight-knit is our backbone," Hampshire coach Dennis Wozniak states. "Our strength is in our willingness to put teamwork at the top."
In the Upstate Eight, Elgin returns seniors Jack Glowinski and Chris Taylor, along with juniors Chris Porras and Tanner Bednar, as well as sophomores Emilio Mancha and Richard Childs. Junior Jesus Rodriguez and freshman Logan Jostes are new to the team.
"We have quality leadership from our seniors," Elgin coach John Devine says. "We had good experiences from our altitude camp this summer. There is a sense of fun and purpose in good balance."
Eric Hil has returned to coach at Larkin. Dan Runzel, Peter Lennard and Mitch Pepa are back for the Royals. Cyrus French and Everett Teetor are a pair of top newcomers.
"I am excited about this year's group," Hill says. "I think we will have a successful season. Most of the team has put in a lot of hard work over the summer. I'm hoping it pays off for them during the season. We are a tight bunch with a strong work ethic. They enjoy being together and working hard in order to improve."
Streamwood senior Jhoan Lino is back after taking 18th at the regional level a year ago. Junior Justis Olivarez and sophomore William Troman also will be counted on.
"We have good team unity and leadership," Streamwood coach Weert Goldenstein says. "The guys get along well and push each other to get better. We'll continue to work hard and plan on improving our conference finish from last year."
In the UEC Valley Division, Bartlett is coming off a third-place conference finish a year ago. Seniors Joey Salatino and Mike Cotton are back, along with juniors Connor Rachford and Alejandro Hernandez and sophomores Anthony Peters and Dan Cotton.
"This team had the best summer in school history," Bartlett coach Eric Brechtel says. "If they continue to build on all of that hard work, it could be a special season for our team. Our main goal is to qualify for the sectional meet for the first time in four years. I truly believe if we can stay healthy, that will happen. Many of the boys have aspirations of state. I believe they can make that happen as long as they continue to work hard and make sacrifices."
South Elgin qualified as a team for sectional competition last year. Seniors Francisco Gonzalez and Juan Alcantara return, as does junior Rhett Buchmiller and sophomores Matt Stover, Matt McClure, Jimmy Hegarty, Jose Gonzalez and Jack Zaley. Sophomore Jeff Skelley and freshman Brandon VanBogaert are new to the squad.
"Our team is strong because of the tight bond these gentlemen have formed," Storm coach Kari Turcan says. "It also is strong because we have so many underclassmen in our top 12. These young men definitely have raised the bar for everyone on the team with their incredible work ethic."
Elsewhere, Elgin Academy's lone runner currently is returning sophomore Jack Souk. St. Edward will have a full team for a second year in a row. Sophomore John Danner is back after qualifying for the sectional last year.
"John has stayed in shape by playing basketball and running track as well as running during the summer on his own," St. Edward coach Kerry O'Brien says.
Sophomore Joseph Wrona and freshmen James Eisen and Zachary Reedy round out the boys' team.
Westminster Christian, which did not have a full team last year, is loaded with freshmen and sophomore runners.
"Our team is new and full of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores," Westminster coach Larry Cochran says. "Our key goal is to stay healthy and teach the runners how to run, breathe and pace themselves properly. Our team is filled with runners who have no bias when it comes to cross country. They are clean slates ready to be molded."
Harvest Christian Academy, located on the west side of Elgin, is in its first season as an IHSA-sanctioned program. Coach Steve Bland leads the Lions.