PEORIA -- Lining up for the girls cross country state meet will be a new experience for just about every Lake County area runner Saturday at Detweiller Park.
With the exception of Libertyville sophomore at-large qualifier Kristi Del Prato, no other runner has experienced the intensity of the always exciting 3-mile race downstate.
The road to the Class 3A state meet beginning at 1 p.m. was not an easy one, but the Warren girls team managed to qualify for the first time in school history with a fifth-place finish last Saturday at the rugged Schaumburg sectional.
Leading the way for the Blue Devils was senior Meg Tully followed by teammates Greta Doden, Becky Haight, Rachel Shoemaker, Michelle Klimt, Emily Jahn, and Molly Casey rounding out their seven runners.
Second-year Warren coach Brett Heimstead is cautiously optimistic that his young squad with only three seniors can do pretty well in their first-ever appearance downstate.
"We've never run at Detweiller and I'm excited so we're going to approach it like every meet we have this year," said Heimstead. "If we can get out of this (Schaumburg) sectional we're one of the better teams in the state so that is something we'll take down there with us."
Del Prato reached state last year as a freshman, but a pulled hamstring at the sectional meet put her at way less than 100 percent strength in Peoria. That injury resulted in Del Prato really struggling at state in 2011, but this Saturday's meet should be an entirely different story.
"I'm really excited to go, and it's nice not being injured like last year," said Del Prato, who placed 12th at sectionals. "My goal is to place in the top 25 (all-state), but I'm just going to try to run one of my best times and see where it gets me."
First-year Libertyville coach Bill Etnyre is glad to see Del Prato continuing to shine in only her sophomore year.
"The goal from day one was to be at her best at the state meet and we're confident she'll have a good meet next week and hopefully that will translate into a top 25 finish," Etnyre said. "As a sophomore, she's still trying to figure it out, and she's still learning. But this is a great start to her first two years.
The North Suburban Conference will have another individual representing them Saturday afternoon as Mundelein senior Ellie Palacios captured the seventh and final at-large berth.
"The goal is to get her anywhere near the top 25 and to get her under 18 minutes," said Mundelein coach John Osmanski. "She has to stick to her game plan and she'll be fine."
The Class 2A girls meet gets underway at 11 a.m. with the Lake County area being very well represented in that 3-mile race.
Fourth-place finisher Vernon Hills and fifth-place finisher Grayslake Central qualified out of the powerful Belvidere sectional last weekend and both of those teams will be running in the state meet for the first time in school history.
Vernon Hills senior Kristen Whitney is a strong No. 1-runner for the Cougars. She has some young teammates backing her up with sophomore Samantha Hershman, freshman Vivian Overbeck, freshman Shannon Skeoch, and freshman Lexi Reich as top-five scorers at sectionals. Seniors Ali Marks and Tara Rooney rounded out Vernon Hills' top seven at Belvidere.
"It was a tough sectional and I knew that fourth place was a definite possibility," said eighth-year Vernon Hills coach Suzanne Richert. "They were just ecstatic that they qualified, and so were we as coaches."
Juniors Korina Gomez and Jamie Brew led Grayslake Central's charge to Peoria with great support from the senior trio of Elsie Rehberg, Jordan Larson, and Emily Moran. Junior Maggie Wehde and senior Miranda Gomez will also compete for the Rams on the big stage Saturday.
"I'm extremely proud of them, and with the newcomer Jamie Brew running well for us throughout the year we felt maybe we had a shot at state," said Grayslake Central coach Jim Centella, who is hoping for a possible top-15 finish. "We are coming from probably the hardest sectional and we're going to try to compete with Vernon Hills and try to beat them for the first time this year."
After having two all-state runners graduate last year, Lakes has two new, young runners in the huge field with sophomore Danielle Griesbaum and freshman Kortney Schardt hoping to make a big impact downstate for coach Keith West.