In preseason rankings, Glenbard West and Naperville North grabbed most of the girls cross country attention.
But the Palatine Pirates elbowed their way into the conversation by taking the 33rd annual Hornet-Red Invitational title with 59 points at Katherine Legge Park in Hinsdale on Saturday.
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The Pirates edged runner-up Glenbard West (61 points), while Naperville Central took third with 86 points, followed by New Trier (90) and Minooka (128).
Glenbard West was without top runner Madeline Perez, who set a state record in winning the 2012 Class 3A individual cross country state title. Perez also captured the Class 3A track crowns in the 1,600 and 3,200 last spring to complete a dominating performance. After a grueling junior season, Perez is easing herself back into competition this fall.
"We don't have a timetable for her return," said Glenbard West coach Paul Haas. "We are working her way back into race shape. When she feels good, we'll put her in."
There was no easing into the season for the Pirates, who showcased their depth by placing five runners in the top 22.
"That's what we've seen with early season workouts, it's like we got a little bit more than we thought we had," said Pirates coach Joe Parks. "It's always good to start well. It's good barometer to see where everybody is."
Making her varsity debut, Hinsdale Central freshman Alexa Haff came out of nowhere to stun the loaded field by taking the individual title in 17:29. Haff battled Glenbard West sophomore Lindsay Graham early -- and then held off a late charge by New Trier junior Mimi Smith to claim the title.
Smith (17:34) took second, followed by Graham (17:35) and Glenbard West teammate Lisa Luczak (18:00).
"I didn't expect this, that's for sure," said Haff of her victory over the three 2012 all-state runners. "I just wanted to do my best. I was definitely nervous at the start, but the finish really gives me a boost of confidence."
"She is brand new to this sport," said Hinsdale Central coach Mark McCabe, "but once you have the talent and the training it comes down to the little things that separate you from everyone else. Alexa is a student of that and she does everything she can to be the best runner she can be."
Palatine senior Liz Cox (18:16) led the Pirates with her sixth-place finish.
"Everyday someone different is stepping up for the team," Cox said. "Just like today our order switched up during the race. We just run as a team. We have the pieces that we can put together. We have worked so hard all summer, but the key is we are focusing on what we can do to run our best at the end."
The Pirates' sophomore duo of Sabina Yosif (18:33) and Kelly O'Brien (18:34) finished 11th and 12th. Junior Amy Kieliszewski (18:40) and junior Kara Burton (18:54) completed the scoring by taking 17th and 22nd. The Pirates' No. 1 runner, Jessica Lincoln, finished 34th.
Glenbard West took third in Class 3A last season and expectations are high this fall -- especially after Graham, who finished 20th for Glenbard East in 2012, transferred into the program. Graham and Luczak went 3-4, while sophomore Grace Rogers (18:40) and junior Megan Ozog (18:40) added 16th and 18th places.
"Right now we are just focusing on ourselves," said Luczak, who is dealing with shin tendinitis after finishing sixth in Class 3A last season. "We are trying to do our best we can do. There is ton of talent on this team and it going to be an exciting year."
Naperville Central junior Katie Hoffman (18:25) took seventh. Katie is a triplet and all three sisters run for the Redhawks. Rachel Hoffman (18:39) was 14th, followed by sophomore Maggie McClowry (18:40) in 15th and sophomore Ellie Marcet (18:49) in 20th place.
"I'm very impressed with our start," said Katie Hoffman, "We are all working really well together and pushing each other. We are building off last season."
"It's a solid start," said Redhawks coach Aislinn Hicks, whose team finished 16th in Class 3A last season. "We have a lot more depth and a lot more experience than we've had in the past."
Metea Valley senior Kendall Cast, who took fifth place in 18:10, is a two-time state qualifier who is looking to break through for all-state honors.
"I have been training harder this year, so I am hoping to make all-state this season," said Cast who helped her team to eighth place. "I want to end my senior season with a bang."
Senior Claire Costelloe (18:28) and sophomore Julia Pena (18:31) gave sixth-place Neuqua Valley a lift by finishing 8-9.
For seventh-place Wheaton Warrenville South, junior Tori Adomshick (19:25), junior Katie Popejoy (19:27) and senior Melinda Franke (19:27) finished 33rd, 35th and 37th.