St. Charles North's Audrey Ernst crossed the finish line at the Upstate Eight Conference cross country meet, then turned to congratulate her competitors running through the chute.
There were plenty to congratulate because the slightly built, blonde-haired freshman won the meet on Saturday. Ernst outdueled familiar foe Gabby Juarez of Streamwood by .6 seconds, winning in 17 minutes, 31.1 seconds on the undulating three-mile course at Lords Park in Elgin.
"Oh, my God, this is just so crazy for me. I can't even believe it, I am just ecstatic," exclaimed Ernst, who sprinted to the lead from the start, heading a front pack of Juarez, third-place finisher McKenzie Altmayer of Geneva and fourth-place Torree Scull of St. Charles East.
"All the girls out here are so fast, it was probably the toughest race I've ever run. They're just pushing the whole time," said Ernst, who defeated Juarez in her first invite of the season also at Lords Park, Sept. 2 at the Elgin City Classic.
Ernst knew she had a slim margin of error against a field of fast closers. Her explosive start and another push midway through the race gave her an edge.
"I was out in front and then they caught me at the end of the first pack," the freshman said. "We were all in a pack. I really couldn't see who was around me but I could feel them around me. The second lap I tried to push it forward and tried to spread out a gap so I had a little bit of breathing room for the end because I know they have really fast sprints. I think that's what really helped me."
Altmayer, unintentionally spiked on the right knee while trying to avoid a raised drain cover about 200 yards from the start, won the meet as a sophomore with a time 15 seconds slower than Saturday, according to Dyestat.com.
"Last year was a really slow year just all around," said the Geneva junior. "So I won it in a really slow time and I knew this year would be hard to keep the title, and I knew I just wanted to go out, run a good race, figure out how the scores worked. I was happy with it."
Batavia junior Dakota Roman and freshman Emma Stephens finished sixth and seventh overall, respectively, behind Geneva sophomore Emma Ehrhardt. Yet the gap from Batavia's first finisher to its last was a mere 36.5 seconds, good for the UEC River Division title,
"Well, it's been since 2006 since we've done that so it feels pretty darn good," said Bulldogs coach Chad Hillman. "Especially, and I don't mean this in a terrible way at all but beating Geneva -- in the sense of a compliment to them because they're so tough at this time of year and they've been so good for such a long time -- is a very big accomplishment."
St. Charles East used depth to defeat Batavia for the boys River title, an identical finish from 2013. Though Batavia senior Ryan Wieties won the individual River title in 15:18.7, one place ahead of Saints junior Mark Sciurba, St. Charles East's fifth runner finished ahead of his Batavia counterpart.
"It was a total team effort," said Saints coach Chris Bosworth. "If you look at Batavia's four versus our four we're tied, and it was Michael Gerkin coming back. He hasn't raced in a month. He's finally healthy."
Also healthy was Neuqua Valley junior Connor Horn, who missed last year's UEC meet with a stress fracture. Saturday he held off West Aurora junior Connor McCue, using a pivotal uphill burst to gap McCue, winning in 15:02.7 to help deliver Neuqua its ninth straight title whether in the Valley Division or a unified Upstate Eight.
"I'm extremely happy," McCue said. "Obviously the win would have been nice, but there's no shame in second place."