Boys cross country: Neuqua Valley runs away with West Aurora title

Huntley senior Keagan Smith displayed remarkable resiliency to win the Class 3A West Aurora sectional Saturday, falling not once but twice and getting up both times to overtake two Neuqua Valley runners in the final 200 meters.

Smith, who finished ninth in the Class 3A state meet last year, got out to a lead on the Stuart Sports Complex course and continued to stay in front through the first two miles.

That's when Smith fell the first time. The Wildcat runners caught and passed him, and Smith had to battle back until the 800-meter mark when he slipped and fell again.

“At that point I was a little worried,” Smith said. “They (Neuqua Valley runners) were up there and they looked strong. I had to put a lot out there to get them. They ran great.”

Smith ran a little better, winning in 15:29. Neuqua Valley's Aidan Livingston and Scott Anderson were second and third in 15:31 and 15:32, respectively.

“One thing a lot of people don't realize about running is it's not just physical, it's mental as well,” Smith said. “When you are 2 and 3/4 miles done with your race it's all about digging deep and finding whatever you have left. You have to have the right mindset for that. If you mentally give up it's going to be tougher.”

The conditions couldn't have been much worse. Temperatures in the low 40s and a steady, hard rain left the course soaked and spectators and runners shivering.

“We knew this weather was coming for several days now,” Smith said. “We allowed ourselves to mentally prepare for it. In this kind of weather you are going to have people who just don't want to run and just feel bad about it. It's all about getting that mindset out and still wanting to go out and run your best.”

While Smith denied Neuqua Valley an individual sectional title, the Wildcats cruised to the team crown. They scored 26 points, easily outdistancing runner-up Plainfield North's 89.

Neuqua Valley junior Jake McEneaney, who finished fourth overall in 15:36, said being able to stay close with Smith gives all the Wildcats confidence going into next week's state meet.

“Scott and Aidan got out with me and we really started pushing the pace,” McEneaney said. “At one point we all went around Keegan Smith. We really put it on and it gives us a lot of confidence knowing how good he is in the state, how fast we can run next week when it matters.”

The Wildcats will have plenty of motivation at state after finishing fourth by a point to Lyons last year.

“That's been ingrained in our memories every day since last year,” McEneaney said. “To get another chance is big. We're really excited for it.”

McEneaney made quite an entrance into the chute as he lost his balance after crossing the finish line and slid almost like a kid on a slip-and-slide.

“I stepped cross the mats and my feet went out from under me,” McEneaney said. “It wasn't pleasant because it was cold but it was nice knowing I got it (fourth place).”

All five Wildcats placed in the top 10 with juniors Matt Milostan (7th, 15:38) and Jackson Jett (10th, 15:44) not far back of the first three.

“I'm a big fan of the conditions because mentally a lot of people check out,” McEneaney said. “The mentality we had was everyone has to race in the same stuff. It really didn't phase us, but when we got out there it got kind of cold.”

St. Charles East took third despite what coach Chris Bosworth called “one of the worst racing conditions I can remember.”

The Saints scored 125 points with a 35-second split for their seven: Mark Sciurba (13th, 15:50), Jack Rzpecki (21st, 15:57), Mike Gerkin (26th, 16:06), Anthony Zilla (28th, 16:12), Brett Izzo (37th, 16:16), Dan Werner (40th, 16:18) and Jake Beno (54th, 16:25).

Marmion also advanced to the state meet, something that meant a lot to the Cadets who have had plenty of success at the Class 2A state meet but had never qualified in 3A before Saturday.

That included sixth-place finishes the past two years, missing in 2014 by 1 point and .1 seconds. Senior Andrew Burroughs has been part of those near-misses.

“It's great,” Burroughs said. “We've been saying all year ‘It's time.' That's kind of been our motto.”

Burroughs led the Cadets Saturday taking ninth in 15:40.

“My coach and I agreed I race best when I relax for the first mile of the race and let it all play out in front of me,” Burroughs said. “As the race goes on pick up the pace a little bit and up the intensity. Go out calm and as the race goes on submerge yourself in the race and battle it out.”

The Cadets scored 132 points to take fourth with Burroughs followed by Charlie Zimmer (11th), Michael Ronzone (12th), Christian Surtz (41st) and Andrew Lifka (59th).

“The rain was an added element but it was fun and as a team we did a really good job of embracing the elements and just putting that to the side and racing through it because everyone has to do it,” Burroughs said.

John Manos finished 18th to help Naperville Central grab the fifth and final state spot.

Huntley missed state as a team by 1 point, but Seth Conroy (5th, 15:38) and Mike Grocholski (16th, 15:54) will join Smith at state as individual qualifiers.

Naperville North junior Emerson King ran a 15:55 to earn the final individual state berth.

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