Sidelines: Wheeling honors pioneering girls cross country teams

Delicate frames. Tender sensibilities. Deficient stamina.

The pioneering Wheeling girls cross country teams of the 1970s had to abide by preconceived limits thrust upon them and their peers.

They helped kick open the ceiling.

Wheeling 1977 graduate Gail Huster remembers that when Illinois girls high school cross country began, in the wake of Title IX, girls races were limited to 2 miles even in state-meet antecedents such as the Illinois Invitational, the “mythical state meet” assembled by coach Bruce Ritter and former athletic director Steve Oracko at Downers Grove North, another early adopter of girls cross country.

Distances over that, like the 3 miles run by the boys, well...

“They thought that would be too much for the girls. Oh, my gosh, we did 10-mile runs in training,” said Huster, who was Gail Miloch when she was runner-up at the 1976 Illinois Invitational and from 1974-77 won four straight Mid-Suburban League track titles in the 880-yard run and the mile.

“I think it was just important that it was something we were able to get started, and being so successful at it, too,” she said.

Wheeling High School agrees.

On Feb. 2 the Wheeling Athletic Hall of Fame will induct those pioneering girls cross country squads that debuted in 1975 under the late Jim Nagel and assistant coach Mark Saylor, won the 1976 Illinois Invitational, placed second in 1977 and fourth in 1978.

It’s a large group, but they deserve the ink: Huster, Janet Altman, Denise Begrowicz, Bonnie Buenzow Taylor, Donna Czaja, Diana Disano, Carolyn Ellis, and Kim Moran.

Also: Kathy Peter, Chris Rathje, Marilyn Snyder, Stephanie Stevens, Sue Timm, Marcia Warden, Michele Weissensee Jarchow and Ann West.

These women laid the groundwork for Wheeling’s second Class of 2024 inductees, the 1979 girls cross country team that decisively won the inaugural Illinois High School Association girls state final, 91 points to Evanston’s 169.

Wheeling's 1979 girls cross country team won the inaugural Illinois High School Association girls cross country state championship. Courtesy of Wheeling High School

Led by fifth overall finisher Debbie Rathje and fellow scorers Donna Stewart Grotthus, Betsy Buenzow Petrie, Theresa Picchietti Budmats and Debbie Bifulco Paust, that team also featured Karen Egge, Julie Hendrickson D’Argo, Mary Krueger, Margaret Madden Schinler, Geri Sabal Egen, Kim Salpietro Zacharkiewicz, Christina Sanchez, and the Vogt sisters, Janice, Sharon and Theresa.

Wheeling was off and running. Nagel’s squads added state titles in 1983, 1984 and 1986, while from 1984-87 Wildcat Dana Miroballi became the first four-time state cross country champion, boy or girl, in IHSA history.

“I think it’s outstanding to be recognized for the things that we started,” said Huster, who Wheeling inducted as an individual in 2013 and went on to a 30-year career at several schools as a teacher and coach, and also as a girls basketball official with three state final appearances.

To their credit, in the days of running MSL conference meets at the Palatine Hills Golf Course, Huster said neither the Wildcats coaches nor the boys with whom the girls trained treated them any differently.

“The boys encouraged us and we always encouraged them, too, and it was a lot of fun,” Huster said.

“I don’t know that we knew it was special, we just knew it was something new, and we wanted to run.”

These pioneering athletes and the 1979 title team will be inducted in a ceremony at about 7 p.m. Feb. 2 in Wheeling’s main gym, before the boys varsity basketball game against Buffalo Grove.

Also inducted as a “Friend of Wheeling” will be veteran journalist Howard Schlossberg. His work with publications such as the Daily Herald and Countryside Reminder-News included a profile on Betsy Buenzow Petrie and coverage of the 1979 championship squad.

Schlossberg said coaches Nagel and Saylor — who like Schlossberg will be coming from Arizona for the inductions — “helped shape my everlasting view of and appreciation for life lessons learned from prep sports, which continues to this day in my work for the Arizona Republic.”

By the way, IHSA girls cross country races in 1998 increased to 2.5 miles. In 2002 the distance moved to 3 miles, same as the boys.

“We were the ones who started it,” Huster said.

Howard Schlossberg Courtesy of Wheeling High School

Leader of (nearly) all Saxons

In a boys dual swim meet Jan. 19 against Hoffman Estates, Schaumburg senior Szymon Mieczkowski established a new school and Schaumburg pool record in the 200-yard individual relay.

His time of 1 minute, 50.06 seconds broke the records set by five-time state champion Brock Harr in two separate swims in 1988.

That’s 36 years ago. But that’s nothing.

Mieczkowski, who Saxons coach Sam Gabriel said will swim at the University of Kentucky, owns 9 of Schaumburg’s 11 boys swimming records.

Second place in the 2023 state meet in the 100 backstroke with two second-team all-state honors as well, Mieczkowski holds Saxons records in the 100 backstroke, 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle, 500 freestyle, the 200 individual relay, both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, and the medley relay.

And that is something.

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