After having their string of three straight North Suburban Conference championships snapped last season, the Libertyville girls cross country team will be trying to run down its fourth league title in five years this fall.
And despite losing two key all-conference runners to graduation, the Wildcats appear to be ready to make a serious run at that goal with a deep group of experienced runners back in 2011.
Defending champion Lake Forest will once again probably be the main team that will stand between Libertyville and the NSC crown. But the Wildcats are ready to have a bounce-back season behind junior standout Nicole Jaffke and key newcomer Kristi Del Prato, who is only a freshman.
"I feel like we probably could have raced better, but I don't want to take anything away from what Lake Forest did last year," said Libertyville coach Joe Roth, whose team fell to the Scouts by 5 points in the conference meet. "I have a feeling we'll probably be battling it out with them again. Stevenson, Lake Zurich, and Mundelein will probably be the five teams that come to mind along with us and Lake Forest in the conference, and we need to just keep everybody healthy."
After placing 12th in the NSC, junior Maggie Fiorito is another runner Libertyville should be able to count on heavily this fall. Junior teammate Abigail Toohey was also all-conference last year. Sophomore Emily Moroz has emerged as a solid young runner for the Wildcats along with teammates Stephanie Hanagan, Lexie Zafiratos, and Meagan Polk.
"We put in a good summer of work, and I was really happy with our time trial," added Roth. "I tell the girls not to worry about other schools and what they're doing, but if we work as hard as we can we think we'll be OK. We have a solid group of 10 to 12 girls who could be in the mix for the sixth or seventh spot."
After placing third in the NSC last fall, Lake Zurich returns this season with its typical strong team of pack runners ready to make another push for one of the top places in the conference.
The Bears have three all-conference runners back, including Cassie Houghton, Angela Ufheil, and Maddie Gelinas, and they give coach Ian Silverman's squad a strong nucleus to build around.
"Our strength really lies in our tight pack and we can put seven up against the top teams in the conference," Silverman said. "They just have to work together and stay close. For a lot of them its their last year."
While Stevenson may not have the same depth or experience overall as Libertyville does, the Patriots do have something in common with the Wildcats this season.
The Pats have an experienced No. 1-runner in junior Mackenzie Levy leading their pack and they also have a freshman joining the team in Kya Suzuki, who could potentially make a huge impact on the squad overall. Levy exploded onto the girls cross country scene by placing 10th in the state as a freshman, but she did not qualify for state last year.
The trio of Emily Cunningham, Emily Top, and Becky Callen give Stevenson a very solid top five scorers to be competitive throughout the upcoming campaign.
"They've all been pretty close together in practices and a lot of these girls have varsity experience," said Stevenson coach Don Proft. "I think Libertyville will be really tough and between them and Lake Forest they're probably the top two in the preseason. Lake Zurich has been really close the last couple of years and I know their goal is to make themselves a contender by the end of the year."
Warren has the advantage of being led by elite junior Meg Tully, who placed second in the NSC last year while Grant is led by sophomore standout Lindsey Lewis, who placed fourth in the NSC.
Junior Marisa Perreault (sixth in NSC) gives Mundelein an inside track to improving its eighth-place team performance this year in the conference while senior Hannah Wittman (10th in NSC) will be trying to help lead Lakes to its fourth straight NSC Prairie Division championship.
Libertyville edged out Lake Zurich for the title of its own Class 3A regional last year, but reaching the state meet has become an increasingly difficult task for Lake County area teams and individuals coming out of the always powerful Schaumburg sectional.
No Class 3A teams or individuals qualified for the state meet last fall with Vernon Hills senior Kelley Gallagher (27th in state) being the only Lake County area runner to reach the state meet in Class 2A.
One team that should have a better chance of competing this season in the post-season will be Carmel as the Corsairs will move down from Class 3A to Class 2A based on the new enrollment guidelines set by the state.
On the state-wide level, Schaumburg will try to defend its Class 3A championship without retired coach Jon Macnider while Peoria Notre Dame is the defending state champion in Class 2A.