By John Lemon
There's no shortage of elite girls cross country runners returning in the Upstate Eight Conference River Division this fall.
St. Charles North welcomes back sophomore Audrey Ernst who capped a breakout freshman season by finishing 13th in the Class 3A state meet. St. Charles East features Hannah Ewald and Batavia returns Emma Stephens.
Geneva has senior McKenzie Altmayer who has been at or near the top of the Vikings' lineup since she was a freshman. Last year she finished 11th in the state meet to earn All-State honors.
Teammate Emma Ehrhardt, a junior, didn't miss All-State by much finishing 39th. Geneva also returns junior Mary Grace Neville (114th at state), sophomore Taryn Christy (148th), sophomore Sarah Mozden (155th) and senior Emma McSpadden (175th) from its state team that finished 12th, one spot behind Batavia.
"Some of our returning runners have made slight improvements while others haven't put the summer time in as expected or are holding back a bit due to minor injuries," Geneva coach Bob Thomson said. "We have some freshmen that may move up and make contributions to our top 10."
Those freshmen include Sophia McDonnell, Emily Belanger and Paige Belzer who have been running in the top 10 during preseason workouts.
"I can't speak for the team's goals, but I would think and expect them to earn a spot at the state meet and challenge Batavia and St. Charles East for the conference title," Thomson said. "We will need our top five to seven to pack it up a bit as they are spread out a bit right now. We have about 12 to 15 girls that will challenge for the top seven spots and things change a lot over the course of the season."
Batavia coach Chad Hillman has six runners back from a team that won the Upstate Eight River and finished 11th in the state meet.
Stephens (36th), Daphne Kolody (77th), Dakota Roman (84th), Marygrace Golden (100th), Anna Malay (106th) and Erika Mansfield (131st) all ran on the state team.
Hillman said freshman Alexa Andrews can also join the mix.
"We are still a young team but we have a lot of varsity experience," Hillman said. "We have goals to improve on the 2014 championship meets. Our conference will be another close battle most likely with the top four teams."
St. Charles East started last year by winning the always competitive Leavey Invite.
Ewald took 11th in the Class 3A 3,200 during track last spring. Senior Anastasia Honea is a 3-time all-state track runner. Junior Anna Arrick also returns to the lineup.
Saints coach Mike Arenberg said he wants his team to "be competitive and relevant" this fall.
St. Charles North will have the lead runner in nearly every race it enters in Ernst, who dazzled in her freshman season.
"Audrey is coming off a great track season," North Stars coach Shari Hayes said. "She will be one of the best in the state this season again."
Ernst will be joined in the lineup by junior Madison Kaufmann, sophomore Ally Suyak, junior Allie Chen and senior Katie Francissen, plus newcomers Nina Olshever, a senior, juniors Courtney Steele and Alyssa Bonelli, and sophomore Cassidy Joyce.
"We return our top four runners from last season," Hayes said. "The girls had a nice summer of training and look ready to go this season. We have a lot of girls that have improved from last season or returned to the team. We have a lot more depth this season and many girls that can fill the five through seven spots."
West Aurora races in the Upstate Eight's other Division, the Valley. The Blackhawks have a new coach, Andrea DiDonato, who welcomes back junior Julia Connelly, sophomore Riely McCabe and junior Evelyn Torres at the top of the lineup.
DiDonato said freshmen Kayla Harderson and Madilynn Walrath will contribute immediately.
"I think it is very positive to see that we have a couple of natural packs forming and we have been encouraging the girls to push each other in these packs," DiDonato said. "Our team also has a lot of natural leaders too. Kara McCleary, a returning senior and Evelyn Torres, a returning junior, are excellent at vocalizing for the coaching staff. They understand that there is a sense of urgency while training and they do a nice job focusing the group on our expectations."
DiDonato, who ran at Rosary from 1993-97, likes what she has seen in her first year as coach.
"The program's philosophy is, 'proper training, course preparation and athlete inspiration,'" DiDonato said. "Personally, I am looking forward to getting to know the courses on our schedule, but the girls have already set their goals on a personal record and making sectionals as a team. As a first-year coach I am delighted to see the athletes' desire to excel."
In Class 2A, Kaneland brings back a three-time state qualifier, senior Brianna Bower. She is coming off an excellent track season taking fourth in the state 3,200 and 12th in the 1,600.
The Knights finished second last year in conference and sixth at their own 2A sectional.
"We are in somewhat of a rebuilding year," Kaneland coach Doug Ecker said. "We have good numbers out and some talented runners, but it will take some time for them to develop."
Other Kaneland runners who will join Bower include juniors Sarah Daley and Abby Shaw and senior Carly Bartholomew.
Ecker said senior Noelle Espino, an all-stater in the 800 last spring, and freshmen Grace Purcell and Tessa Brennan are the early candidates to join the top seven.
Troy Kerber enters his 30th season coaching Aurora Central Catholic. He's got quite a one-two punch in senior Karina Liz and junior Abby Fioresi.
Liz, a returning all-stater in cross country, is also the two-time defending state champion in track in the 800. She has track scholarship offers from Missouri, Illinois, Notre Dame and Kansas.
Fioresi finished 38th at the state cross country meet last fall and made all-state in track in the 1,600.
"They are running very strong right now, giving ACC a strong, potent, one-two punch," Kerber said.
Junior Olivia Sauceda transferred from Rosary and is emerging as the No. 3 runner. Sophomore Toriana Turk and junior Alex Johnston also look to be in the top five. This is Johnston's first year in cross country after running on the track team's state qualifying 3,200 relay.
Other runners to watch include junior Amy Brouch and sophomore Shannon LoPresti along with newcomers Hannah Doherty, a freshman, and sophomores Alexis Camp and Elsie Meier.
"Optimism abounds as this could be the greatest team in Lady Chargers history," Kerber said. "We are probably going to start a little bit slower coming out of the gate, but if all goes well, we could be a force in 2A this season."
Dyestat ranks Aurora Central No. 10 in Class 2A heading into the season. The Chargers should see plenty of strong competition in the Metro Suburban West Division from Glenbard South and Wheaton Academy.
"Liz and Fioresi are two premier front-runners," Kerber said. "The rest depends on the ability of Sauceda and the chase pack to close the gap."