Neuqua Valley extends conference streak

At this time last year Neuqua Valley junior Connor Horn was battling a stress fracture, not cross country courses.

Saturday, though, he was fighting not only West Aurora's Connor McCue but also teammates Dan Weiss and Michael Widmann for the Upstate Eight Conference boys cross country title at Elgin's Lords Park.

Horn prevailed in the individual race and Neuqua, in two packs of runners all placing among the top 13, won its ninth straight league meet, be it Valley Division or a united UEC.

"It's so exciting," said Horn, who ran the first mile in 4 minutes, 49 seconds and finished in 15:02.7, a six-second gap over second-place McCue. "This is such a cool course, and to have everybody on our team in the top 15, that was great. So that was a big victory for our team, and we're looking forward to the state meet."

Horn, who led off Neuqua Valley's Class 3A championship 3,200-meter relay, made an uphill move on McCue during the second mile of the hilly, woodsy, 3-mile course. As Horn approached the final hairpin before the finish chute he held about a 30-meter lead.

"He was a fast 800 runner in track so I knew that I couldn't, like, hold him off if it got too close toward the end of the race, so I had to go earlier," Horn said.

"I'm extremely happy," McCue said. "Obviously the win would have been nice, but there's no shame in second place."

Wildcats coach Paul Vandersteen got a kick out of his entire lineup of Horn, Weiss, Widmann, Aidan Livingston, Dominic Dina, Austin Kinne and Caleb Ferguson.

"Our plan was to go out and our top three would run together and then the other four run together," the coach said. "This time, though, the other four ran a little bit closer to our top three at the beginning, moreso than other races. It was a breakout race for Aidan Livingston."

Waubonsie Valley senior Jon Vollrath finished sixth overall as the Warriors placed finished third in the Valley behind up-and-coming East Aurora. Metea's Valley's Brendan McGrath placed 43rd among the 105 runners to pace a fifth-place team Valley finish for the Mustangs.

Neuqua Valley's girls defended their Valley crown, senior Anastasia Bernat's time of 18:13.6 tops in the division and eighth overall, followed by seniors Allison Hansen of Glenbard East and Mae Elizabeth Gimre of West Chicago.

Glenbard East placed seventh last year in the DuPage Valley but second this year in the UEC Valley behind Hansen and Rams such as all-conference freshman Cailyn Biegalski.

"We've got a team of really, really sweet girls that work their butts off," said Glenbard East coach Joe Latala. "My job is not that hard. I just tell them the direction to go and they get it done."

UEC River: 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."

Juarez knew what to expect.

"I definitely know her style of racing," said Juarez, joined among all-conference runners by fellow Sabres seniors Samantha Harding and Addie Kelly in a fourth-place River Division finish for Streamwood.

"She always takes it out pretty fast," Juarez said, "so my coach (Dennis Lau) is just like, 'Stay on her, I don't want any gap between you guys.'

"So that's just how it played out," Juarez said. "She kept making moves, I had to go with her. But she just made one move, the second mile I think. That's when I let her get away. But once I saw that I could catch her I was so determined to get her. Give me five more meters, I could have got her."

The do-or-die moment for Juarez involved the runners encountering a creek then a steep slog uphill and back down.

"I think that's the part where I kind of let it get away from me," Juarez said. "I knew I had to keep pushing, but I just couldn't go."

Juarez came home in 17:31.7, faster than her victory last week at the West Aurora Stampede.

Juarez's kick was "definitely what I was concerned with," Ernst said.

"We were fighting the whole time for it, so I think going out fast really helped me," Ernst said.

Juarez, who finished her first mile in 5:29, said running in a fast pack helped her.

"It definitely helped pushing me because normally I feel like I'm by myself running the races, so when there's more people it definitely pushes me. But, I mean, Audrey was my main goal," said Juarez, 49th in 3A cross country in 2013 and an all-state track athlete in both the 1,600 and 3,200 as a junior.

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

"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."

Elgin finished in fourth paced by the all-conference finishes of Brandon Copeland and Logan Jostes.

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