For a runner that ended up finishing ninth in the Class 3A boys cross country state meet, Buffalo Grove's Steven Salvano ran most of his junior year under the radar.
But the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Bison senior this year.
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After a mid-season invitational, a switch seemed to be flipped and Salvano's confidence skyrocketed as he finished with a bang, taking second at the Mid-Suburban League meet, third at the Schaumburg sectional and finishing by becoming only the second BG boys runner to earn a state medal in the program's history. He also finished 22nd at the Nike Midwest Regional in Terre Haute, Ind.
"He found it in the last six weeks," said Buffalo Grove coach Jamie Klotz of Salvano's confidence.
Salvano finished in the top eight of every regular season race he ran, except for one when he was sick. His average meet finish was 3.2, second best for a BG runner.
"You can do stats anyway you want to do them, but that says he's able to run with anybody in state on any given day," added Klotz. "His motivation is very internal. He's motivated to try and become the state champion."
The passionate senior enters this season as the top returning runner in the MSL and the fourth top returning runner from state.
Welcome to the spotlight.
"Coming down the stretch, I realized I could definitely challenge for all-state," said Salvano, "but I didn't expect a ninth-place finish. Last year is when I established a name for myself. This year I am feeling great -- I'm in a good spot."
It has been a gradual process for Salvano. As a sophomore he was a contributing member, but toiled in the shadows on Buffalo Grove's best ever cross country team that finished fifth in Class 3A.
He learned from Buffalo Grove's first all-state runner Jeremy Atchison, who finished fifth in Class 3A in 2011. He was pushed by Taras Didenko, who finished 26th at that same state meet. And he trained with Dan Roe, who finished 36th for the Bison that year.
"I just wanted to follow in Jeremy's footsteps," said Salvano, who finished in 50th place as a sophomore. "Work hard every day at practice, and get better."
His training with Roe that year set the foundation for future success.
"They killed with each other every single day trying to get to that next level," Klotz recalls.
Salvano indeed reached that next level the following year, and it was a mid-season invitational at Oak Park-River Forest that proved to be pivotal. Salvano hung tight with Warren senior Martin Martinez, an all-state runner in 2011, until the final stretch.
"I realized, 'You are better than you think you are,' " said Salvano, who finished five seconds behind Martinez in taking third place. "I thought if you can hang with this guy, you can hang with any other guys at state."
And he did just that on his epic late-season run, including the state meet where used a hard finish to pass a chunk of runners in securing his top 10 finish.
Salvano continued to grow in the off-season, getting tougher mentally in an up-and-down track season. He hit a school record (9:19) in the 3,200 at the Buffalo Grove sectional, but an accelerated schedule at the Class 3A state track meet threw off his preparations and he finished a disappointing 31st place (9:42).
"That was definitely the low point of my season," said Salvano of the reporting issues that interrupted his warm-up. "I was mentally out of it, my legs shut down on the third lap. But I knew I'd be back."
The BG senior also grew into a leadership role, and has become more involved with his teammates this year.
"He's becoming more of a team guy," added junior Eli Hinkle of Salvano's leadership. "He does a lot for this team, and he is pushing us real hard."
And Salvano's motivation is at an all-time high.
"I can't coach the fire that is inside of him," said Klotz. "His internal motivation to be the best he can possibly be … it's a gigantic piece of the puzzle."
The BG team is following in its leader's footsteps. The Bison are young but with great potential. Steven's younger brother Kevin, a sophomore, is an integral part of a squad; last year he was all-conference and is ready for more this season.
Sophomore Tom Cleary, junior Jake Wenzel and Hinkle are also closing the gap, and freshman Arturo Bautista isn't far off pace for a Bison squad that is eyeing its second trip in three years to the Class 3A state meet.
And Salvano is the focal point.
"Our goal is to stay with Steven as long as possible, keep our top five together as close as possible. We're excited," Hinkle said.
Klotz had a good view of his team at an early season workout. The BG coach stood at the top of Grant Blaney Stadium bleachers as his team grinded out a grueling workout. It wasn't hard to spot Salvano setting the pace and intensity of the workout.
Klotz considered the distance his star runner has come, and then considered his potential.
"He's one of the top guys in state. He knows it and other people know it," Klotz said. "You have to have a recognition of how hard it is to stay at the top. Every day you have to continue to work to keep yourself in that position, and every day it's the same for him. He's motivated."
There were few eyes on Salvano as he finished his late August workout in the empty stadium, but that will change come November when the spotlight will burn brightly at the Class 3A state meet at Detweiller Park in Peoria.
Can Salvano hang with the likes of O'Fallon senior Patrick Perrier, who finished third in Class 3A last season? Will he be there with Downer Grove North senior Zack Smith and McHenry junior Jesse Reiser? Can he hold off the hard-charging group of MSL runners like Palatine junior Graham Brown, Conant junior Zack Dale, Hoffman Estates senior Billy Thomas, and the Hersey duo of senior Any Philipose and junior David Rodriguez?
Salvano considered the question.
"After last year I realize I am one of the guys that people are looking out for and I just have to embrace it," he said. "I have done the work to back it up. I am happy with where I am at, but I'm not satisfied. I have goals way ahead of what I've accomplished."