Now in his 18th season coaching the Kaneland boys cross country team, Chad Clarey has learned that having a senior-dominated team usually translates into a strong season.
If that adage proves to be true again, look out for the Knights this fall.
Kaneland, coming off a third-place finish in conference last year, fifth at regionals, fourth at sectionals and 15th at the Class 2A state meet, is led by junior Kyle Carter. But after Carter, who took 53rd at state, the Knights will be looking at mostly seniors in their top seven.
"We have a large senior class, and in the time I've spent coaching, I've often marveled at the way seniors have a knack for getting the job done," Clarey said. "We have a long road ahead of us, and there are no easy meets for us. Anything we earn this year will be hard-fought. We race in the toughest conference in the state of Illinois for Class 2A teams."
Kaneland brings back five of its top seven. Clarey said Carter has been leading workouts all summer. "He's bigger, stronger and faster, and his leadership will be a huge boost to the program," Clarey said.
Next come two seniors who are working to be the team's captains: Connor Johnson (79th state, 16:00) and John Meisenger (80th, 16:01). Other returning state racers include Brandon Huber (senior, 108th, 16:16) and Luis Acosta (junior, 171st, 16:48).
"We're going to need to see them push forward to tighten up our pack," Clarey said.
Other Knights competing to get in the top seven include junior Nathaniel Kucera (all state 3,200 relay), junior Ryan Bower, senior Brad Kigyos, senior Nick Albano, senior Ryan Paulson, senior Nick Messina and senior newcomer Matt Rodway.
St. Charles North enters the year as the defending Upstate Eight Conference River Division champions at both the varsity and frosh-soph level.
The North Stars also won regionals last year took second at sectionals and finished ninth in state.
And like Kaneland, the North Stars give coach Kevin Harrington the luxury of veterans to replace stalwarts Declan Duggan, Zach Heuer and Grant Markowicz.
Seniors Ryan Joyce and Ryan McSweeney ran in the top seven much of last year while senior Spencer Gray was usually third or fourth for the North Stars and senior Nick Borger also was in the top five most of the year.
Harrington will mix in newcomers Keane O'Kelley (senior), junior Nathan Klair (top 7 at state last year), junior Kevin Davis, and sophomores Steve Lewandowski and Hayden Joyce.
"This is my third season as head cross country coach," Harrington said. "From an outsider looking in, we have not had high expectations at the start of the year -- pretty much everyone, except those on the team, could point to graduations, transfers, depth, and assume that we would not be very potent. I feel the same this season as I have in the past. I am not sure what others will think about us since we lost several quality athletes to graduation, but I am confident in the group that we have."
Harrington's team finished in the top 10 at state last year without an individual in the top 40. Look for the same type of team this fall that uses its pack to win meets.
"I expect us to really focus on building a wall of runners out on the course this year," Harrington said. "Last year it (ninth at state) was a testament to team running. I believe that this group will be just as tight in racing as they are off the course.
"Our senior class has demonstrated excellent leadership this summer. They also feel as if they have something to prove."
St. Charles East coach Chris Bosworth liked how his team ran at the frosh-soph meet last year and hopes those youngsters can give a boost to the varsity.
"Last year we were very strong on the frosh/soph level," Bosworth said. "We brought the younger runners up for the regional and sectional. The distance crew had a very good track season and that continued into summer."
Three of the Saints made it to sectional last year, and this fall they have 60 runners on the team. Those competing for top seven include returnees: junior Max Rowland, sophomore Will Muckian, junior Lucas Werner, senior Adam Phillips, senior Nathan Iwanski, junior Mike Meyer and senior Jesus Galvan; and freshman newcomers: Mike Gerkan, Alex Thomas, Mark Sciurba, Mason Holsford and Jack Rzepecki.
"The overall feeling of this team is unlike any other team I have coached," Bosworth said. "The guys are committed to the team mentality. We have put in a very good summer and look to improve at all of the invites we go to."
Geneva's Bob Thomson is another coach who said his program's overall numbers are up.
The Vikings have one of the area's best front-runners returning in senior Mike Bianchina who was all-conference in 2011 and a state qualifier who finished 42nd.
Senior Ryan Rasmussen also made all-conference last year and will be joined by senior Dan Herrera, senior Jordan Midgley, senior Nate Wendt, junior Blaine Bartel, junior Dan MacDonald, junior Dan Dudman, and sophomore Justin Poythress. Freshman Corey Shaughness should also be in the mix.
"We have talent in all of our classes so we feel very confident in how well we'll do not only this season but over the next few," Thomson said. "We are excited for the opportunity to improve on last season's tie for third place in the conference and just missing out on qualifying to the state meet."
Last year Batavia sent its first individual, Chris Spadafora, downstate since 1996, but he graduated along with the team's other leader Mike Redmond.
Batavia, coming off a second-place finish in the UEC River and seventh-place finish at sectionals, is focused on qualifying its team for state this fall according to assistant coach Daniel Renz.
Senior Trevor Hollis returns after an all-conference and all-regional season last year. Others to watch are juniors Chris Orlow and Mitch Zabka, sophomore Ryan Wieties, and junior Ricky Downs.
Newcomers Jordan Berendt and Mitch Voellinger, both juniors, also look to be in the top seven.
"Our team strength is our depth," Renz said. "We have a group of about 8-9 guys who run together at practice all the time. We expect to compete this season and grow as a team. The team has worked extremely hard this summer and they are ready to achieve."
One of the best teams year in and year out lately has been Matt Sinnott's West Aurora Blackhawks. They are going for their third straight Class 3A state berth after finishing second in the DVC last year, second in regionals and 14th at state.
West Aurora has five runners back who ran at state last year: seniors Omar Gomez, Robert Herrera, Zach Truckenbrod, Graham Isaacson and junior Joe Chavez.
Gomez, who started his senior year by winning his second straight Aurora City title last Saturday, took third in conference last year and was 60th at state (15:21).
Other runners to watch include seniors Brandon McKay, Alan Martinez, Deonta Motley, Ethan Lesher, junior Ivan Thompson and freshmen Connor McCue and Evan Castillo.
"A top 10 finish at state has been our goal for quite a while and each year we have gotten closer to accomplishing that," Sinnott said. "Our expectation is to meet or exceed that goal. The team is certainly motivated and capable, and I am really excited to see how the season unfolds."
Marmion coach Dan Billish was pleased with how the Cadets opened their season winning the Aurora City meet. He said the team wasn't happy last year finishing eighth at the Class 2A state meet.
"Our goals were set much higher and we were primed for a trophy run, but that reality never set in," Billish said.
The Cadets won't have to worry about another disappointing 2A state run this November because they have been bumped up to Class 3A.
"A lot of schools would shrug at the thought of being elevated, but the mentality of the team has remained constant," Billish said.
Junior John Graft began the season taking second at the City meet. Billish is excited about what Graft can do if he's healthy, and there's plenty of other runners to watch, too.
"Junior Ethan Young was a tremendous surprise last season and a leader in the purest form. Major moves from freshman standouts Eric Lifka and Tim Riordan will bolster the roster after an adjustment season," Billish said.
"Our senior class not only contributes from a competitive standpoint, but they have stepped up to take control over this team. I have been witness to the best summers to date for Nick Delaney and Chris Burrows, but I have been thoroughly impressed with Liam O'Dea's high standard to bring this team together and hold members accountable in and out of practice."
Other runners Billish said to watch are senior Eric Anderson, junior Kevin Grahovec, sophomores Colton Renier and Brady Bobbitt, and freshmen John Young and Andrew Burroughs.
Billish said the team's goals are a seventh straight conference title, fourth straight regional crown and a top 10 finish at the Class 3A meet.
"It will take a lot of work, but I have a renewed faith in these boys and look forward to our journey together," Billish said.
Aurora Central finished second in the SCC last year, fifth at Kaneland's Class 2A regional and 12th at the Belvidere sectional.
Senior Matt Meyers started his year taking third at the City Meet and is joined by senior returnees Adrian Alviar, Oscar Gomez, Justin Jerwers, Daniel Aguilera, Jeremiah McCue, juniors Javier Montelongo, Gilberto Cervantes, Matt Knapp, and Patrick Lefevre, and sophomores Daniel Aquino and Gabriel Boebel.
Coach Troy Kerber said his newcomers include Richard Echivierria and Trevor Bennett, juniors James Cerza, Clae Carlson and Anthony Garza, senior Matt Schiro and freshmen Rueben Franco and Jared Kennedy.
"Meyers is on a mission and is ready to make a run at Peoria and would like to take his teammates with him," Kerber said. "Alviar and Gomez both return in their third seasons in the varsity top five. Right now, we have an elite front man and than a gap with a strong pack. The key is to develop a couple of runners who can split that gap to Meyers, or have the whole pack move up as the season progresses."
Seniors Jake Gehman and Grason Poling lead Priscilla Copple's Aurora Christian team. Senior Nico Kresel returns after taking a year off. The Eagles won regionals, took second at sectionals and ninth at the Class 1A state meet a year ago.