This is the season the Vernon Hills boys cross country team has been dreaming about for a long time.
The No. 3-ranked and undefeated Cougars will be aiming for a top-three trophy when they toe the starting line today at the Class 2A state meet beginning at noon in Peoria.
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The 3-mile race at historic Detweiller Park should be a great one, as top-ranked Illiana Christian and No. 2 Mahomet-Seymour could prove to be Vernon Hills' greatest challenge in its quest for one of the coveted trophies.
The awards ceremony for Class 2A gets under way at 1 p.m.
The undefeated Cougars have put together an absolutely fantastic season. They won the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division championship, the overall NSC title, the Burlington Central regional crown, and the Belvidere sectional last weekend to head downstate with plenty of positive momentum.
Vernon Hills opened the season by winning the Sycamore invite before taking first place at the Woodstock Festival meet and the Grant Invite.
Senior Kyle Whitney has been a super No. 1 runner for Vernon Hills, as he took first place at sectionals last weekend in 15:26.
Whitney and fellow senior Ben Mohrdieck both reached state as individual qualifiers in 2012. But some new faces have really made a huge impact for the Cougars this fall starting with freshman standout Shane Williamson, who placed sixth at sectionals.
After Whitney and Williamson, Vernon Hills juniors Tyler Smith and Rob Williams were not far behind as the Cougars' third and fourth runners at sectionals. The experienced top-seven pack is rounded out by seniors Nick Webber and Eric Doerhoefer.
Second-year coach Mark Whitney is very happy about his squad's performance and optimistic that his runners can finish the campaign in style.
"We're going into it feeling like we've got a shot (at top three) and we're going to take it," said Whitney, who is the father of Kyle Whitney. "This past weekend we had a 30-second gap between our 1 and 5 guys and I think we feel like any of the top four or five teams could win it."
Vernon Hills pretty much took the NSC by storm this season as it toppled five-time defending NSC champion and Class 3A team Lake Zurich for first place.
"We feel like we still haven't run our best meet of the season and I believe our best meet is still coming up," said Whitney, who was a high school state cross country champion in New York state. "It's an experienced team with mostly seniors, but we do have a core group of three guys coming back next season so we're looking forward to the future."
Fox Valley Conference squad Grayslake Central also qualified for the Class 2A state meet, as the Rams tied for fifth place with Prairie Ridge at sectionals.
Grayslake Central was led by the trio of junior Max Brunk, sophomore Jack Battaglia and senior Kevin Orozco at sectionals. The Rams' top-seven pack also included sophomore Danny Vincent, junior Suneed Ahmed, senior Steven Anderson and senior Ben Shwaiko.
"I think we can finish in the top 15 if we run really well," said Grayslake Central coach Jimmy Centella, whose team is making its second trip to state in three years. "It's the best trio we've ever had, by far, so that really helps the team score."
Lake Zurich showed just how much hard work can pay off last weekend at the powerful Schaumburg sectional.
The Bears may have lost six of their top seven runners from last year's fourth-place state finishing team to graduation. But they still managed to return to Peoria's Detweiller Park for the sixth straight time with a fourth-place finish at sectionals.
Senior Will Llanos is Lake Zurich's only returning runner with state meet experience and he will be joined by elite freshman Matt Pereira when the starting gun for the IHSA Class 3A meets sounds at 2 p.m.
The awards ceremony for Class 3A begins at 3 p.m.
Pereira led the Bears with a sixth-place finish at sectionals in 15:30 with great support from No. 2 runner Llanos and No. 3 senior teammate Dave Brown.
The rest of Lake Zurich's top-seven pack featured seniors Austin Kuehr and Matt Reninger, junior Justin Shim and sophomore Matt Milner.
Besides taking fourth last year, the Bears' previous five-year run at state included a 162-164 loss to perennial power York for the 2010 state title.
"One of our goals every season is to get to the state meet and then run our best race at the state meet so we're going to prepare as best as we can," said Lake Zurich coach J.B. Hanson. "Any time you get in the top 10 (individuals) at this sectional you are one of the best and the state of Illinois is very competitive. Matt (Pereira) is as talented as they come and he's as smart a runner as they come."
Lake Zurich will be joined downstate by two individual NSC qualifiers led by Libertyville senior Pat Humen, who placed 10th at sectionals.
"At this point we don't have many expectations for (state) and the victory is getting down there," said Libertyville assistant coach Ben Zollo. "Making it downstate is really the goal and it's amazing because it's his first year on this team."
Warren sophomore Dustin Macuiba also put together a great finish at sectionals, as his 12th-place finish earned him the seventh and final at-large berth to the fabled meet.
"(Macuiba) is feisty, he likes to compete, and he's only a sophomore so he's learning to run at this level," said Warren coach Bill Dawson. "He was seventh at regionals and 12th at sectionals so to get down there is an accomplishment and the nice thing is he's a sophomore so we have something to build on the next couple of years."