The NJCAA Division III-IV cross country meet gets under way at noon Saturday at Sauk Valley Community College.
With national advancement at stake, the participants are expecting tough competition. Plenty of that will be supplied by Harper sophomore Troy Cunningham, a holdover from last year's national championship team fielded by Harper.
"We know other teams are going to be gunning for us because we are (national champions)," said Cunningham.
According to Hawks coach Jim Macnider, the Hawks have defeated every team who will participate in the regional meet.
A familiar foe will be Harper's biggest opponent; Macnider says College of DuPage is expected to excel.
Cunningham could steal the show and win the individual regional championship. The Conant product comes into regionals three weeks removed from running a career-best 24:42 over 8k at St. James Farm in West Chicago.
"I don't really care to much about the time," said Cunningham of his personal best. "It's about competing, and the place."
"He's about as gifted a runner as I've come across" Macnider said of Cunningham.
Cunningham says he's aiming for victories both at the regional and national championship meets.
"I hope other people see me as the guy they want to beat," he said. "I'm sure there's going to be guys up there with me (at the regional). I'm going to try to run strong."
At the team level, Cunningham knows he'll need strong supporting efforts from his teammates. He believes the Hawks' conditioning is where it needs to be.
Macnider preaches gap control and a tight pack to his runners on race day, and Cunningham says that aspect has been improving all season.
"In each race, the gap (between Harper runners) is getting closer," Cunningham said.
The individual in charge of keeing the Hawk pack together is sophomore Colin Weber (Wheeling).
"That's going to be the key to our success," Macnider said. "Colin Weber has made massive improvements this year."