Neuqua Valley has set a pretty high standard when it comes to boys cross country, with the Wildcats securing four state trophies in the last five years. That includes state titles in 2007 and 2009.
But Neuqua Valley coach Paul Vandersteen didn't really know what to expect from his squad this year, especially after losing his top two runners from his squad that took third in Class 3A last year.
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Vandersteen needn't worry too much. It was business as usual for Neuqua Valley at the 32 annual Hornet-Red Devil Invitational on Saturday in Hinsdale.
The Wildcats placed four runners in the top 15 in cruising to the title with 61 points on an overcast and muggy morning at Katherine Legge Park.
"I had no idea what to expect," said Vandersteen of his preseason estimation of his squad. "We put in a great summer, and the program kind of feeds itself. We'll keep working hard and see where the chips fall, but it was fun to see them have some success today."
New Trier took second with 96 points followed by defending Class 3A state champion Palatine (113 points). Host Hinsdale Central (131 points) and Deerfield (145 points) rounded out the top five in the 16 team field.
Niles North senior Micah Beller took first individually, cruising the 3-mile course in 15:13, followed by Neuqua Valley senior Alekh Meka (15:16.) and Palatine senior Christian Zambrano (15:19.). Minooka's Joey Santillo (15:22.) and Highland Park's Jonah Hanig (15:24.) rounded out the top five.
Beller hung with the lead pack for the first two miles then made separation in the final mile to secure the title.
"I really pushed it all in the final mile and hung on," said Beller, who never looked back after taking the lead. "I just wanted to go out there and do the best I could."
Neuqua Valley lost all-state runners Mark Derrick and Taylor Soltys from last year team, but the Wildcats didn't miss a beat with Meka leading the charge.
Meka hung tough with Beller for the better part of 2 miles, but couldn't match the Niles North senior surge at the end.
"I was going for the win," said Meka, "this race definitely gives us a boost in confidence and it will set the tone for the season."
Neuqua junior Nick Bushelle (15:27) and senior Robbie Hohlman (15:29) weren't far off Meka's pace, securing sixth and eighth place for the Wildcats. Senior Brendan O'Connor (15:47) also gave his team a lift with a 15th-place finish.
"Vandersteen is an amazing coach," Meka said. "When you become a senior everyone gets so much stronger and faster."
Senior Ethan Kaplan (15:38) paced New Trier attack. The Trevians had 5 runners place in the top 25.
Another team that really didn't know what to expect this season was Palatine. The Pirates had graduated five runners from last year team that rolled to a state title.
But the Pirates showed they will be in the thick of things come November, especially with Zambrano leading the attack.
"We have all the pieces, we just have to put them together," said Palatine coach Chris Quick, whose team had three runners in the top 25. "We don't have a lot of experience and we had a lot of mistakes in the race today, but we can fix them."
Junior Emil Kozakiewicz (15:52) and junior Argeni Ballion (16:03) took 16th and 24th place to help pace a Pirates attack that was without sophomore sensation Graham Brown, who ran in the frosh/soph race. Senior Zach Stella (16:16) took 36th place but is coming back from an injury and will be counted on for big things later in the season.
But Zambrano's performance opened some eyes; the senior was part of the championship run last season and is being counted on to help carry the team this season. He didn't disappoint.
"We're still learning to race," said Zambrano. "I'm going to put the team on my back a little bit and step up as a leader."
Hinsdale Central is also a team that will be looking to make some noise this season, and the Red Devils served notice on Saturday.
Junior Billy Magnesen (15:31) and senior Ryan Somerfield (15:45) helped power the Red Devils by taking 10th and 14th place.
"We went out for the first mile and I was feeling really good," said Magnesen, who is looking to pair with Somerfield to give the Red Devils a solid 1-2 punch. "I just wanted to do the best I could."
Patrick Bunk (15:38) and Alex Gold (15:40) took 12th and 13th place in pacing Deerfield to fifth-place finish.
Hanig's fifth place finish pushed Highland Park to sixth place, followed by Niles North (7th place).
Senior Joey Santillo, who took 16th place in Class 3A, led Minooka to an eighth-place finish, and Matt Stern (16:02) took 23rd place in leading Naperville Central to ninh place.
Wheaton Warrenville South was without junior Luke Schroer, but junior Nolan McKenna (15:28) had an impressive day, taking seventh place and leading the Tigers to 10th place.
"Definitely gave me some confidence," said McKenna of his performance. "But I had a good summer and I have a good team behind me. Last year I got lots of experience and I'm feeling more comfortable this season."