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updated: 9/1/2011 8:54 PM

High hopes for Palatine

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  • Palatine's top runners include, from left, Marcus Garcia, Tim Johnson, Tim Meincke and Peter Tomkiewicz. The Pirates think they may have the best team in school history and are aiming for a state championship this fall.

       Palatine's top runners include, from left, Marcus Garcia, Tim Johnson, Tim Meincke and Peter Tomkiewicz. The Pirates think they may have the best team in school history and are aiming for a state championship this fall.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Anthony Gregorio will try to lead Palatine's boys cross country program to unprecedented heights.

       Anthony Gregorio will try to lead Palatine's boys cross country program to unprecedented heights.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

 
By Michael Eaken
Daily Herald Correspondent

Palatine's boys cross country team is no stranger to high altitude.

After all, the Pirates have strung together eight consecutive top-10 finishes at the state meet and also have won eight consecutive Mid-Suburban League titles.

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But where the Pirates found themselves in June was a bit high for even their standards.

Palatine trekked out to Colorado to spend some time training at Rocky Mountain National Park, some 8,000-to-12,000 feet above sea level.

For Palatine and coach Chris Quick it is all part of the process, as the Pirates are hoping to reach new heights this year and secure their first state title.

Last year, Palatine finished an impressive fourth in Class 3A, and the Pirates return four of their top seven runners and enter the season ranked first by Dyestat.com.

"I think it is pretty clear what we want," said Quick of the Pirates' lofty goals. "I don't think it's a bad thing to say we want to be state champions. That is the only focus we have."

Palatine offers a blend of experience, talent, strong off-season training and bit of history in what they hope adds up to a special season.

Seniors Anthony Gregorio, Tim Johnson, Marcus Garcia, Tim Meincke and Peter Tomkiewicz give the Pirates plenty of experience.

Gregorio leads the charge. Last year he took second in the MSL, seventh at the Schaumburg sectional, and closed the season finishing 20th in Class 3A.

Johnson, Garcia and Meincke all picked up valuable state experience last season and made huge progress during the off-season.

Johnson, who was slowed by mono early last cross country season, came back during the track season to help Palatine to an eighth-place finish in the 3,200-meter relay in Class 3A.

The wild card is Tomkiewicz, who spent most of last season on junior varsity and did not run at the state meet.

Tomkiewicz turned it up a notch during the off-season at the Nike Regional and has not let up. The senior enters this season pushing Gregorio to be Palatine's No. 1 runner.

"On any given day any one of the five seniors can be the best guy," said Quick. "It's not about individual stats -- the team goal is the only goal."

The seniors not only picked up some valuable experience at last season state meet; it also gave them a major boost in confidence.

Palatine shot to an early lead at the state meet and had eventual state champion York and second- and third-place finishers Lake Zurich and Neuqua Valley sweating halfway through the race.

Palatine had started slowly at the Schaumburg sectional, where they finished second, but came out like gangbusters at state. The frantic pace eventually caught up to the Pirates, as they finished fourth. But they learned a valuable lesson.

"It meant a lot to us," said Gregorio of the Pirates' charge. "We didn't totally get the results we wanted, but we were proud of our effort. We were all dying but we hung tough."

"We ran our best race possible," added Garcia. "Now we have the experience that we need and we're confident that we can do it."

The Pirates continued their momentum through a strenuous off-season workout regimen that included the weekly grueling five-mile morning loop and also the team bonding trip to Colorado.

"I think last year at state gave us inspiration," said Meincke, who found himself running with eventual champion Lukas Verzbicas of Sandburg and second-place finisher Jack Driggs of York at the half-mile mark at state. "We didn't get the trophy at state last season, but it has motivated us for this year and we want it really bad."

"We're all willing to sacrifice anything for the team," said Tomkiewicz. "I'm looking to make all-state, and I think we're all capable of doing that."

There will also be a touch of historical motivation this season. Last December, legendary track and cross country coach Joe Johnson passed away.

Johnson directed Palatine to a second-place finish at the 1980 state meet, with the Pirates scoring their lowest state point total (121 points).

Quick thinks this year's squad can surpass that finish.

"That's what we're shooting for," added Quick. "We're talking about this being the best Palatine team ever."

Palatine has a daunting schedule, including opening up this weekend at the Hinsdale Central Invite, where the Pirates will face No. 2 Neuqua Valley and No. 4 New Trier. The seniors sound ready for the challenge.

"We are a bit more mature this season," said Garcia of the senior-heavy Palatine team. "There are a lot of great teams and we're trying to ignore the rankings and take it one step at a time."

"We've just been bringing it every day and training really hard," added Gregorio, "We've been picking each other up and now we just have to keep working hard. Hopefully it will pay off at the end."

On the final day of Palatine's team trip to Colorado the Pirates faced the daunting challenge run.

The sign at the beginning of the run had an arrow pointing up, stating "Speed limit 15, uphill only."

The Pirates didn't blink as they climbed 5.5 miles, elevating from 8,300 to 11,300 feet. The only thing that stopped their ascent was a snowdrift that blocked further progress.

"I told them if you can survive this you probably can survive the rest of what we're going to do," said Quick.

The Pirates did survive and now the arrows are all pointing up.

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