Does a surprisingly strong finish to the 2011 season mean another great season lies ahead for the Lake Zurich girls cross country team?
It took awhile for the Bears' squad to establish itself last fall and beyond, as they were running in the shadows of perennial North Suburban Conference power Libertyville for many years.
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But when the NSC meet rolled around late last October, the Bears showed that they were ready for prime-time by rolling to the title of the 13-team meet for the first time since 2006.
They followed up that stellar performance two weeks later with a fourth-place finish at the Schaumburg sectional to advance to the state meet as a team for the first time since placing ninth downstate in 2000.
Lake Zurich's relatively young squad ran to an 18th-place state meet finish at Detweiller Park. But the experience it gained in that meet is immeasurable heading into the 2012 season.
The Bears did lose their No. 3 (Cassie Houghton) and No. 4 (Elizabeth Berton) runners from last year's state qualifier to graduation. But they do have five of their top seven back and hope to defend their NSC championship.
"The truth is, our focus is late season and we're just not great in dual meets," said Lake Zurich coach Ian Silverman, who is in his 14th season. "We tend to be best at the end of the season and our dual-meet record doesn't reflect our place in the conference meet so that is pretty typical of us."
Silverman has to love his duo of junior Meaghan Gelinas (35th in Class 3A) and sophomore Katie Fabbrini (87th in Class 3A) ready to lead his pack into competition this fall.
Senior Angela Ufheil was actually Lake Zurich's No. 3 runner at sectionals last year so she has proven that she has the potential to run very well in big meets for the Bears.
Senior Meagan Hughes returns as an experienced state-meet runner for the Bears as does sophomore teammate Nicole Syverson.
Despite the brutally hot temperatures outside for the better part of the summer, Gelinas and Company have been continuing with their workouts full scale in preparation for the upcoming season.
"Over the summer we've been working very hard together and even though we lost two of our prominent seniors I think we're going to do really well this year," said Gelinas, who placed 14th at sectionals and is also a soccer player at Lake Zurich. "Our main goal is to make it to state in the end and keep improving up until then. My personal goal is to make all-state (top 25) this year and I just have to keep pushing myself to keep moving up."
Silverman believes his junior leader could definitely do some moving up this season, but he knows that all of his runners need to stay healthy if they hope to make another strong post-season run.
"Honestly, we're about as strong or maybe stronger than last year so we're pretty optimistic." said Silverman, who coached the Bears to seventh in the state in his first season back in 1999. "It's a matter of staying healthy and staying focused, and they're willing to do the work to get there."
Lake Zurich was not really expected to win the NSC crown or make state last year, but it proved it was for real even earlier in the 2011 season according to Silverman.
"We knew we had a solid team and we really started seeing the potential at the Peoria Notre Dame meet," said Silverman, who is still working on his top-seven for 2012. "Meaghan (Gelinas) is just an absolute competitor and she wants to be the best at everything she does."
Silverman has confidence in his team heading into the new campaign, but he knows the competition will not be easy when the end of the season meets are run.
"There are a lot of teams in contention for these spots and our philosophy is just to stay healthy until the end of the season," added Silverman. "I have to assume we're the (NSC) favorites coming in and Libertyville will be strong with a deep program. We're pretty focused, we're strong, and we're experienced. But we have a lot of depth with different ages and we have a nice mix there."
Last year Lake Zurich became the first NSC team to reach state since Libertyville qualified in 2007. The Bears girls cross country program does have a third-place trophy to their credit under the guidance of former coach Steve Pichman in 1998.