Batavia and St. Charles North have found themselves running in the same meet four times this fall, and each occasion the teams have been separated by less than 10 points.
So it was no surprise the teams were neck-and-neck again Saturday morning at the Upstate Eight Conference meet at LeRoy Oakes in St. Charles. The Bulldogs had finished ahead of the North Stars two of the previous three meetings, but this time it was the North Stars prevailing by the closest margin yet, 38-40.
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"We came into this race respecting them," North Stars coach Kevin Harrington said. "We weren't walking in feeling we won anything. Batavia is running lights out. Makes it a different feeling when you have to walk in and earn something."
With homecoming week at St. Charles North, Harrington wasn't sure how his team would respond.
"Homecoming and I was grumpy with them all week and there's a million things going on and now I'm barking at them but they came together quite well," Harrington said. "They were together at the mile and stayed together for the first half and then Spencer (Gray) went up and ran with the Neuqua kids. He was just a breath away (from winning the race)."
Gray led the North Stars taking third overall in 15:13.1, just behind a pair of Neuqua Valley runners Nick Bushelle (15:11.4) and Alekh Meka (15:12.0).
Nathan Klair (15:32) and Nicholas Borger (15:40) followed Gray for the North Stars while Harrington praised the team's fourth runner Ryan McSweeney: "Ryan ran a great race for us. He's gotten better every meet. Sophomore on the state team, he's really coming on now. We were waiting for him to show what he can do and he came up and did that. That was huge for us."
Kevin Davis was fifth for the North Stars and one spot ahead of Batavia's fifth runner David Morrison.
This was the first year the coaches decided to run the River and Valley Divisions at the same time but score it as two races. The top 24 overall runners earned all-conference but the rest of the results were split into two divisions.
That led to mixed reactions.
"Spencer Gray doesn't run as fast as he did today if we are separate," Harrington said. "There's some advantage to that. I'm the kind of guy I'm in the middle. I like the idea that it is a big field meet and I like the idea there's still two conference titles. We're an OK-sized school, but on the other hand I think we showed we can compete with anyone. That was fun."
"I like it from the standpoint of having more competition," Geneva coach Bob Thomson said. "With seven teams it would have been the smallest meet on our schedule. The kids are used to this many teams on the starting line. Scoring separately I feel is fair, I don't know if everybody voted that way, it's divided by school size and we're not at the size of Lake Park or Neuqua. I like it we are competing with them and it's scored separately."
"We voted, personally, I don't know," Batavia coach Mike DiDomenico said. "Some people believe it gets you ready for regionals but my counter for that is you have 14 teams here and then you go to regionals and you only have 8 or 10 teams so how does it get you ready for regionals? It is what it is. Our job is to compete and I thought our kids did a fantastic job. We fell a little short but whatever format Batavia will always be ready to compete and they did an outstanding job and I was a really proud of them."
DiDomenico's team was led by a trio of all-conference runners: Trevor Hollis (15:27), Mitch Zabka (15:31) and Chris Orlow (15:35).
Hollis was especially rewarding to DiDomenico as he did it in his first varsity race of the season. He had run an open race on this course two weeks ago at the St. Charles North invite.
"Trevor came back and he was our No. 1 man," DiDomenico said. "He's been battling injuries for like three years now. It's just a matter of getting him healthy and hopefully being ready for the championship season. Trevor is a big-time athlete. When you put him on a stage he performs. As you can see he did it today."
Senior Dan Herrera ran a 15:38 to take 18th overall and earn all-conference for Geneva as did teammate Jordan Midgley in 21st. The Vikings' Mike Bianchina missed by one spot.
Geneva took third in the River with 58 points followed by St. Charles East at 91. Max Rowland earned all-conference for the Saints by taking 11th in 15:32.
Valley Division: Neuqua Valley's Bushelle had never defeated his teammate Meka.
It took a frantic final push, but Bushelle did just that Saturday, passing both Meka and Gray into the chute to win by less than a second.
Bushelle fell behind by about eight seconds going up the final hill before making up the difference just in time.
"I was a little weak on that hill but going down the hill I had enough left in me so I just did it," Bushelle said.
Bushelle, who placed eighth at Peoria Woodruff and sixth at the Hornet-Red Devil earlier this year, said Saturday was his best yet.
"My races early in the season weren't that great," Bushelle said. "All the races I've been having average races. I've been racing with him (Meka) since I was a freshman and he was a sophomore and he's always been a couple seconds ahead of me."
The Wildcats, ranked second in the state, dominated Saturday. If the meet had been scored as one race, they would have beat St. Charles North 27-87. In the Valley-only scoring they beat Lake Park 21-58 with Waubonsie Valley third at 75 and Bartlett fourth at 82.
In addition to Bushelle and Meka, Connor Horn was fifth overall, Brendan O'Connor eighth, Mike Whaley 11th and Robert Hohlman 17th.
"No one really had that high of expectations for us," Bushelle said. "All the seniors have stepped it up. I think we have a really good chance at a state trophy or maybe even win state."
Other area all-conference runners included Lake Park's Jeremy Lozano (fourth), Dakota Morales (14th), Michael Strachan (22nd) and Eric Dade (23rd); Waubonsie Valley's Julian Morrison (seventh); and Bartlett's Connor Rachford (10th) and Anthony Peters (24th).