The 14th Annual James Taylor Invitational was a great test for Lake County boys cross country runners in more than one way Saturday morning at Camp Henry Horner.
Not only was the new 3-mile course layout more of a challenge than in years past because of hills, but the very cool temperatures below 50 degrees, and windy running conditions for this early in the season were another obstacle that runners had to contend with in the 13-team meet.
The battle for the team championship went down to the wire between Richmond-Burton and Vernon Hills, and the Rockets wound up edging the Cougars 60-64 for first place.
The push for third place proved to be almost as close as host Grant managed to hold off Grayslake Central 71-78 in a race that went back and forth the whole way.
Lakes senior Ryan Prais continued to shine for the Eagles with a winning time of 16:17 as he finally pulled away from runner-up Kyle Whitney (16:30) of Vernon Hills, and third-place finisher Peter Audrain (16:32) of Grant down the stretch.
Prais was all-state in Class 2A as a freshman and he reached the state meet as a sophomore before injuries ultimately prevented him from making a third trip downstate in 2011. But after breaking his own school record of 15:22 with a career-best 15:11 last weekend in Peoria, Prais appears to be on track for a great ending to his high school career as the 2012 season unwinds.
"I decided to draft off of them (Whitney and Audrain) because of the wind and I picked it up in the last half-mile," said Prais, whose team also got a 15th-place finish from junior Jimmy Burchard. "I was the fifth 2A boy at Peoria (Invite) so I think I can place (top 25) at state this year."
Besides Whitney's second-place finish, Vernon Hills had a great trio of junior runners Saturday with fellow junior teammates Ben Mohrdieck (eighth) and Nick Webber (ninth) really making a big difference for the Cougars' team scoring.
"I was very pleased and we were actually without two of our top five guys today because of injury," said first-year Vernon Hills coach Mark Whitney. "All things considered it was a great performance and we key off the lead pack and try to keep everybody as close as we can."
The host Bulldogs only used five runners in the varsity race, but it was more than enough as Trent Peters-Clark followed Audrain in sixth, Jorge Costilla took 16th, and sophomore Jeff Brundidge placed 18th for coach Jeff Durlak's troops.
"They ran well today even with one guy out injured, I thought we ran excellent, and our top two challenged the front pack for most of the race," said Durlak. "We kind of knew we would be close with Vernon Hills because we raced them in a dual meet Tuesday and we executed a pretty good team race today."
Grayslake Central's surge for fourth place was led by senior Kevin Boyle in fourth place, junior Kevin Orozco in 12th, Tommy Zygmunt in 19th, Kirk Dickson in 21st, and Ben Shwaiko in 25th.
"We knew Vernon Hills was a really strong team and the goal was to stick with them and beat them," said Grayslake Central coach Jim Centella. "Our fourth and fifth runners really stepped it up and closed the gap. But our top three wasn't quite strong enough to stay with Vernon Hills."
Lakes coach Andy Schroeder was happy with the way the race unfolded for Prais and Schroeder is very optimistic about the rest of the season.
"He (Prais) ran smart today and I was really pleased to see that," Schroeder said. "He's doing well and the rest of the team is improving, but we didn't have two of our top five today."
Grayslake North also has a promising young runner in its lineup as junior Ryan Bruder led the Knights Saturday in 10th place with sophomore teammate Jack Barreca placing 30th.
"He (Bruder) has been having a good year and he's been competitive with every group," said Grayslake North coach Brandon Boyd. "Even with a quad injury he's been improving week to week and we fully expect him to make it to state this year."
Round Lake senior Angel Carrera continued to lead the Panthers in 11th place. Vernon Hills teammates Eric Doerhoefer (23rd) and Morgan Lichtenstein (24th) finished strong as did Carmel teammates Alex Warkenthien (26th) and Anthony Gattusso (27th).