St. Charles North's tradition continues.
Three of their top five runners from last year's state team graduated. So coach Kevin Harrington's team started slow, focused on running together and continued to get better throughout the fall.
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The reward came Saturday at LeRoy Oaks where the North Stars' second-place finish at the Class 3A St. Charles East sectional earned them a spot at next week state meet in Peoria.
"We went into the year and we weren't sure if we would make it," senior Spencer Gray said. "We had a lot of PRs today. It has been kind of tough to fill (our graduation losses) but I think we've done it."
They have indeed. Gray led the way taking second overall in 15:12. He passed three runners after the reality check hill with a half-mile remaining in the race.
"It means a lot to me," Gray said. "I was really nervous for this meet. I knew a lot of guys had beat me so it felt really good to get them back."
North Stars coach Kevin Harrington pointed to the Upstate Eight Conference meet two weeks ago as a turning point in Gray going from the North Stars' top runner to one of the top runners in the entire field.
"That gave him a ton of confidence," Harrington said. "Running against Neuqua a couple weeks ago he found he can run with the best in the state. He was going to stay with that lead group and when it came time to getting up the hill and back he was just going to try to go. He is a machine. He can just keep on rolling and he showed it today."
Harrington always stresses pack running, and Nathan Klair and Nick Borger teamed up to finish 16th and 23rd in 15:23.5 and 15:28.1, respectively, and seniors Ryan McSweeney and Ryan Joyce ran 15:36.4 and 15:43.6 for 31st and 39th, respectively.
"The Ryans were neck and neck the whole time and closed the door hard," Harrington said. "Nathan and Nick were hip to hip. We had the race we have been waiting for all year. I have been getting tired saying it wasn't a perfect race and I don't know if this was perfect but it was really good. They earned it. We talked about running together, be together on the mile, keep an eye on your teammates, and they did. It was a great race for us."
It also was a great race for two area senior individuals, Geneva's Mike Bianchina (third, 15:13.8) and Batavia's Trevor Hollis (fifth, 15;14.2).
It's the second straight state berth for Bianchina and the first for Hollis, two runners who both have overcome more than their share of adversity to make it this far.
"The boys came to run today," Geneva coach Bob Thomson said. "They really did well. I saw Mike at 1.3, 1.4 miles and he was 25th or worse. He really made it up, holy cow. It's just a shame the team didn't go with him."
Geneva finished one spot away from state in sixth place with 189 points, 15 behind Wheaton North. Batavia was 11th.
"Looking at the times, you can't run a sub-five on your third mile to close that back door and beat these quality teams," Batavia coach Mike DiDomenico said. "We got hurt a little because we did not put ourselves in position at the two-mile to compete because there's no way you are going to come back with a sub-five at the three-mile.
"We'll learn from it. The good news is six of those guys are coming back. That should be exciting. We battled every meet, they were fun to coach and fun to watch. It was a very competitive season and next year should be even better."
The one senior in that Batavia group is Hollis who missed his sophomore and junior track seasons with a variety of shin splints, stress fractures and hip problems. He took his training slow in the summer and worked his way back into the cross country lineup just a couple weeks ago, and now he is state bound. He passed seven runners Saturday in the final stretch to move up from 12th to fifth.
"I wasn't really prepared to do this," Hollis said. "I just gave it my all every race I ran. Getting to state is a big deal. I'm really excited.
"It's really hard to keep training and injuring yourself and having to take time off and then get back into shape. We just played it smart and just took it all aiming for the postseason."
Bartlett senior Connor Rachford ran a 15:15.1 to finish seventh and earn an individual trip to state.
"It means everything," Rachford said. "It's something we've been training for our entire four years. It's something we've all been working for. It's kind of bittersweet because our team (got seventh place)."
Rachford was in the top two for the first mile and a half before a number of runners tried to overtake him in the more difficult back half of the course.
"This course is definitely pretty tough the second half," Rachford said. "That's when you have to be mentally tough and just hang on for dear life and see what happens.
"I was pretty happy. I was just aiming to qualify and to place top seven is more than I could ever imagine."
Huntley's Keagan Smith (15:19.1) and West Aurora's Omar Gomez (15:20.4) grabbed the final two indivual spots, taking 11th and 12th overall. The first individual to just miss state was another West Aurora runner, Robert Herrera in 15:22.2 for 13th.
Naperville North finished with 80 points to win the sectional by 31 points over St. Charles North. The other three state qualifiers all came from the DuPage Valley Conference: Wheaton Warrenville South (155), Naperville Central (166) and Wheaton North (174).
Jimmy Qiao paced the Huskies by winning the individual title by seven seconds over Gray. Qiao got his season off to a good start winning the Springfield Invitational and also won the DVC meet but was looking for a better finish Saturday than his third-place regional run last week.
"That was a really tough field," Qiao said. "At the beginning of the race I was scared to take the lead. Last week wasn't a good week for me. I just went out there today and ran and ran well."
Wheaton Warrenville South's Nolan McKenna challenged Qiao a little past the midpoint before Qiao fought back.
"I completely expected him to make a move on me which he did but I was determined to match his move," Qiao said. "I guess I matched it really well and I took the momentum from there."
The Huskies got their next four runners in within 22 seconds of Qiau: Jake Pecorin (15:23.2), Ryan Hanselman (15:24.6), Griffin Haugen (15:28.0) and Kerry Gshwendtner (15:28.6).
"I really want my team to do well (at state), we're really hoping to trophy," Qiao said. "I feel everyone did amazing. They told me the split was 22 seconds and I knew I ran fast, so I was ecstatic. (Coach Dave) Racey does a really good job keeping us level until regionals, sectional and state and I feel sectional is where you can feel the peeking, you can feel I still have energy, let's go."
Kyle Cepeda followed McKenna for the Tigers, taking eighth in 15:15.3. David Dillon (15:28.8), Daryle Worley (15:46.5) and David Santana (16:02.7) rounded out their top five.
Naperville Central also had a good split with 34 seconds between its top five: Ryan Auld (15:22.8), Matt Stern (15:26.9), Ethan Brodeur (15:33.6), Christian Schafer (15:43.9) and Scott Hicks (15:56.3).
Alex Ryan took fourth in 15:14.0 to lead Wheaton North who also had Wyatt Didier (15:39.5), Josh Doty (15:40.6), Zach Ewoldt (15:48.3) and Paul Steeno (15:50.9) in their top five.