After a shocking and meteoric rise to second place last year at the Class 3A boys cross country state meet, Lake Zurich has now established itself as one of the programs to beat in Illinois this fall.
Under the guidance of now sixth-year head coach J.B. Hanson, the Bears have quietly developed into a real force to be reckoned with not only in the powerful North Suburban Conference, but across the entire state with its performance in 2010.
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Lake Zurich rolled to its third straight NSC crown last season before capturing a regional crown and going on to win the prestigious Schaumburg sectional the weekend before the state meet.
That victory set the stage for what almost became one of the most shocking upsets ever at historic Detweiller Park in Peoria as perennial power York nipped the Bears by a mere 162-164 margin to add to the Dukes' record 27 state titles.
Considering the Bears placed 16th in the state in 2009 and they were basically on nobody's radar heading into last season, seeing them raise that state runner-up trophy had to be even a bit of a shock to Hanson.
But it also did much more for the Lake Zurich program than to just put it on the state map, it really made the athletes realize that they could shine on the biggest stage if they followed their tireless work ethic.
"It kind of provided validity to the hard work philosophy that the hard work pays off," said Hanson, who has a generally laid-back coaching style.
As far as the upcoming season, bringing home one of the top three trophies again will certainly not be an easy task for the Bears as they lost three of their top four runners who will all be running in college this fall.
"I don't think anything is unrealistic, and this sport is unique from the other high school sports," said Hanson, who lost three of the top 37 runners in the state to graduation. "You can overcome a lack of talent with a lot of hard work so I wouldn't count us or any other teams out."
Gone this season are Victor Delatorre (EIU), Alex Brend (Minnesota) and Ryan Moncrieff (Miami, OH), but senior Pat Juras (17th in 2010) is back for his final campaign after leading Lake Zurich's pack on numerous occasions last fall.
Juras is also coming off a great track season last spring when he placed ninth in the state in the 1,600-meter run. Then he joined Brend, Delatorre, and Moncrieff at the Nike outdoor nationals where they brought home a third-place finish in the 4x1600-meter relay.
Senior Jon Smith was the Bears' No. 5 runner last year while No. 7 runner and junior Jared Ripoli gives Lake Zurich three returning runners with state meet experience.
"Juras is somewhere in the top 10 returning runners (in the state), and Jared (Ripoli) is coming off a great summer of training," added Hanson. "We have a nice core to build around. We just need to put in the work and see if there are any surprises."
Last year, the Bears were one of the big surprises when all was said and done, and this year they can only hope to come close to all of the accolades they received in 2010.
But even though Lake Zurich has now made a name for itself, the goals and targets will remain pretty much the same as usual for Hanson and Co. heading into the new campaign.
"It's interesting, from day one we can't compare ourselves to anyone else, we can just do the best we can every day and be proud of the work we put in even if things don't bounce our way," Hanson said. "Our goals are always the same, we want to win conference, qualify for state, and do as well as we can down there."
At this point in time it is hard to envision any of the other teams in the NSC being able to topple the Bears for the 2011 conference crown as Mundelein (second), Warren (third), and Libertyville (fourth) all finished well behind Lake Zurich's impressive 24-point championship score last season.
"I don't think Lake Zurich is as good as they were last year," said Stevenson coach Scott Somers. "But I don't think anybody is better than them in the conference, either."
Besides the ever-present York downstate, Hanson and most experts expect teams like Neuqua Valley and Palatine to be in the hunt for a top-three trophy when the state meet rolls around again in early November.
Unlike many seasons in the past however, there is currently no clear-cut favorite to win the individual Class 3A championship. There are a lot of very good, elite runners, but there is no "superstar" who stands out above and beyond the rest of the field.