This is the season the Vernon Hills boys cross country team has been building toward for a long time.
And Saturday morning in the 15th annual James "J.T." Taylor Invitational, the Cougars showed why they are the No. 4-ranked team in Class 2A, as they rolled to the championship of the 16-team meet.
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Vernon Hills' dominant performance featured five runners in the top-14 places on the 3-mile Camp Henry Horner course. The Cougars won by a comfortable 33-93 margin over the host Bulldogs.
Crystal Lake South was third with 108 points, followed by Woodstock (137) in fourth and Richmond-Burton (170) in fifth.
Vernon Hills' championship effort was led by senior Kyle Whitney's winning time of 16:17.45. Junior teammate Tyler Smith (16:28.27) took runner-up honors under the warm running conditions.
Senior Ben Mohrdieck added a seventh-place run for Vernon Hills, while junior teammate Rob Williams (ninth) and senior Nick Webber rounded out the Cougars' top-five scorers.
"Everybody came out and just decided that this was the next level, and we wanted to go out and do what we did two years ago, when we won the fresh-soph invite here," said Whitney, who placed 52nd in Class 2A last year. "We went out and tried to keep our position, and the weather was just hot enough to dehydrate you a little bit."
Vernon Hills did not reach state as a team last fall, but Whitney and Mohrdieck (100th in Class 2A) are ready to push the Cougars to Peoria in their final season. Senior teammates Eric Doerhoefer (17th) and Keith Carlson (30th) also ran well Saturday, attesting to the Cougars' depth. Freshman Shane Williamson has also emerged as a runner to watch for the Cougars.
"We really like this meet because we can run both fresh-soph and varsity level and it gives us a preview of what the next couple of years will look like," said Vernon Hills coach Mark Whitney, Kyle's dad. "Right now, everybody is probably running a little tired because you have to keep training."
The coach added that his son has been training well and is looking forward to some of the championship season races.
"We're trying to keep our 1-5 gap as narrow as possible," Mark Whitney said.
Grant's pack was led by the trio of senior Dalyn Romig in fourth, junior Jeffrey Brundidge in fifth and junior Frank Cardy in 10th. Senior Jorge Costilla added a 34th-place finish as the Bulldogs' fourth runner.
"It was not our best team race, but our top three were all in the top 10," said Grant coach Jeff Durlak, whose team won the NSC Prairie Division in 2012. "Our back end of the pack struggled a little bit today. But we've been training pretty hard so you are going to have an off race every once in awhile."
Crystal Lake South had a balanced team effort en route to third place as senior David Lenzini was the Gators' top runner in 11th place.
CLS put together a solid pack behind sophomore Doug Cain in 20th, sophomore Tommy Melone in 24th, freshman Jon Prus in 25th and senior Drew Kophman in 28th.
"We wanted to beat Grant, but 15 points behind them is not bad, and our No. 1 runner (Lenzini) had a good day," said Crystal Lake South coach Rich Eschman. "We have a solid top-five pack and they were separated by 46 seconds. Our goal is 35 seconds for our 1-5 split, and the key is that they run as a group. The more we do that, the better off we are."
Carmel wound up taking seventh place in the large field with 211 points, while Grayslake North nipped Grayslake Central 247-249 for ninth place. Lakes took home 11th place with 257 points.
Grayslake North was led by senior Ryan Bruder in sixth, while senior Jimmy Burchard was Lakes' top runner in 12th place.
"We ran a little tired, but our top runner (Bruder) ran about 20 seconds faster than he did here last year," said Lakes coach Andy Schroeder, who is rebuilding without the services of graduated three-time state qualifier Ryan Prais. "We're just trying to improve our times from a year ago. We were missing some guys today so we're not 100 percent healthy."
Grayslake Central senior Kevin Orozco edged junior teammate Max Brunk for 18th place, while Grayslake North junior Jack Barreca placed 23rd. Carmel was led by senior Anthony Gattusso in 27th place. Junior Rosendo Acosta was Round Lake's top finisher in 31st place, while junior Ricky Sidlowski led Wauconda's pack in 33rd.