Practice is fascinating to me. Coaches are fascinating to me. While I love going to other coach’s practices, unfortunately, I simply don’t have much time to because I’m at my own practices. However, since I do not coach in the fall, I recently had the time and opportunity to visit some successful Cross Country programs in Lake County, Illinois. This article will compare and contrast their programs and attempt to find out what makes them so successful. I focused primarily on the boys’ programs, since that is where most of my experience in coaching lays.
If you are the type of person who just loves spoilers, scroll down to the bottom of the article to find out how the three teams did at their Sectional Championships. The end of this article will be, in part, a preview of the athletes at the IHSA State Cross Country Championships.
Here is a quick breakdown of the three programs I had the pleasure of following (rankings are from the weeks I visited them):
Grayslake Central High School
- Head Coach: James Centella
- Boys’ and Girls’ programs are combined
- Defending Illinois Class AA Boys State Cross Country Champions
- Boys are ranked 4th in Class AA
- Girls are ranked 15th in Class AA
Lakes Community High School
- Boys’ Head Coach: Travis Shepherd
- Girls’ Head Coach: Keith West
- Boys are ranked 13th in Class AA
- Girls are ranked 6th in Class AA
Lake Zurich High School
- Boys’ Head Coach: JB Hanson
- Boys qualified for State for 8 straight years
- Boys are ranked 4th in Class AAA
The first thing I noticed that all three of these programs had in common was how overwhelmingly positive all of the coaches are with their athletes. Through three different schools, four different head coaches and three different assistant coaches, I never heard a negative word. All forms of communication were positive or corrective in nature. Part of this, perhaps, may have been due to the power of observation, but I do not think so. I have gotten to know all four of those head coaches a bit from coaching against them in the spring. None of them are among the screamers and ragers that are somehow still prevalent in certain high school sports.
The first thing I noticed that all three of these programs had in common was how overwhelmingly positive all of the coaches are with their athletes.
Obviously, the programs shared a lot in common, but they also had their own unique qualities. First, let me go over what happened at each practice before I delve into more specific comparisons.
Grayslake Central High School
The Rams are the defending boys Illinois Class AA State Cross Country Champions, which they won in a landslide, scoring just 54 points. They placed sixth in 2014, 17th in 2013, and 19th in 2011. They return Jack Aho, the defending state champion, along with his brother Matt, who placed seventh at the state meet. The GLC girls placed ninth last year at State.
I met Coach James Centella in the basement of the school just before 5:45 a.m. on a pitch-black Friday morning. Although held during a time when most rational people would much rather still be in their beds, the weather was ideal for distance running: 60 degrees, still, and very fresh after a light rain. The one hindrance, other than the early hour, was the darkness. The rare “black moon” made visibility incredibly difficult. If the team meeting and warmups lasted a little longer than usual, that was OK.
“Announcements, bring it in!” Centella said jovially, as his team milled about in the hallway. Some general announcements followed, about what time the bus left in the morning (6:50 a.m.) and what sort of jobs different athletes had at the meet (getting the tarp, getting the tent, etc.), and information about ordering the conference meet shirt. Coach Centella did not have to hype his team up before a hard day of practice or really speak much at all about what would take place that day. Routine would dictate the practice. As expected, Centella said they would be doing their usual pre-meet day, which meant a 30-35 minute run on their usual path. The exact prescription for each runner was nicely laid out on a printed spreadsheet posted on the team bulletin board.
After the short meeting, the athletes went right outside to the track for a series of stationary exercises like lunges, leg swings, and knee grabs. The activities were social, with the athletes in clumps talking to each other as they went through the motions. Occasionally, some athletes would need some gentle urging to complete the exercises. At the conclusion of the exercises, enough light had peeked through to allow the team to start their run.
Thankfully, Grayslake Central High School is located just across the street from Central Park and the grounds of Grayslake Middle School. The athletes only have to cross one road (very low traffic at 6:00 in the morning, of course), and they can complete the rest of their run on the various trails in the park. There is no set course. Athletes know how many minutes they have to complete, and are able to come up with their own route. Only occasionally do the coaches have to tell an athlete to either speed up, slow down, or get moving entirely. For safety, they are encouraged to run in a group.
During the run, Coach Centella and his assistants trotted around to make sure everybody was on task. For the most part, everything ran very smoothly. Between the boys’ and girls’ teams, there were almost 100 athletes trotting around the park. Because they had different running assignments and started at slightly different times, they trickled back to the track at different times.
Once back at the track, another routine started. There were strides, hurdle drills, and mini-band exercises to be completed. The coaching staff roamed around to supervise, but only occasionally needed to correct or motivate an athlete. “Don’t bend at the waist,” Coach Centella said to an athlete doing a mini-band exercise. “Squat.” While he was helping out some younger athletes with the mini-bands, his studs were running their 100-yard strides on the turf football field. When the athletes were done with their routines, they were free to go, but not before having some watermelon brought by one of the team moms.
As is the case at most practices, the last athletes to leave were the best ones. Ask even a layperson to pick out the best distance runners of the group, and they would almost certainly point at Jack and Matt Aho. Tall, long, and lean, the Aho brothers barely look like they break a sweat, regardless of the pace.
Jack is the defending Illinois Class AA State Cross Country Champion, and holds track bests of 4:08.79 in the mile and 9:00.7 in the 3200-meter run. Matt, who finished seventh at the 2016 State CC meet, has track bests of 4:27.91 in the 1600-meter run and 9:25.05 in the 3200m. The latter time was just 0.33 seconds away from qualifying him for the 2016 Illinois Class AAA State Track & Field Championships, where his brother Jack finished as the runner-up in the 3200 meters. There are different enrollment cutoffs for cross country and track in Illinois, which is the reason that Grayslake Central is in the largest division for track, but the middle division for cross country.
Grayslake Central did not just win the state championship in 2016. They dominated, scoring just 54 points, while runner-up Mahomet-Seymour scored 121. In addition to the Aho brothers, Eli Minsky, currently a junior on the team, earned All-State honors with a 25th place finish. The rest of the team graduated in 2016: John Girmscheid (23rd), Jack Battaglia (26th), Danny Vincent (51st), and Alden Aaberg (108th).
The current crop of Rams has held pretty steady at a fourth-place ranking in the AA, while the girls, who placed ninth at State in 2015, were ranked 10th at the time of my visit. The girls return Megan Girmscheid (39th), Elizabeth Aho (80th), Greta Ruhlman (124th), and Riley Acthemeier (146th) from last year’s ninth-place team.
Going into the championship season, Coach Centella is hoping both of his squads can advance to the State Championships, which has become an expectation recently for the Rams.
Lakes Community High School
In their 12-year history, the Eagles have only had one team qualify for the IHSA State Cross Country Championships. Their girls’ team qualified for the AA meet in 2008, the second year Illinois moved to three classes. The boys have never qualified as a team, but have had two individuals qualify in their history: Blake Franson (2008) and Ryan Prais (2009, 2010, 2012).
A little under nine hours after leaving the Grayslake Central practice, I got a chance to see how their new rivals at Lakes Community High School practiced. The rivalry between the two schools stems from the fact that they are both charter members of Illinois’ newest conference, the Northern Lake County Conference.
While the Lakes boys’ and girls’ teams technically run two separate programs, they are more apart than different. Because they have no assistant coaches, Travis Shepherd (head boys’) and Keith West (head girls’) basically act as each other’s assistants, in addition to running their own programs. Lakes is the only team in the new conference with two head cross country coaches. All the other teams have one head coach who oversees both programs. So, in a sense, Lakes is fortunate, though their situation is certainly not ideal.
The team meets in a lower hallway in the athletic wing of the school. They started with a quick meeting, then headed outside to what had continued to be a great day for running: 64 degrees and slightly cloudy. Both programs started out with an easy jog, followed by dynamic stretching led by their respective coaches.
Like the practice at Grayslake Central, today’s practice was simply a pre-meet day for the athletes at Lakes. Some of the varsity members were not even at practice, having been given the option to run on their own. The remaining members took off on their 2.5-mile “pre-meet” loop, which started on the gravel trail winding around the side of the school and took them across Grass Lake Road to a series of athletic fields. Shepherd and West trotted around with them, monitoring the athletes who needed to be monitored and shouting out general encouragement and jokes.
As the athletes got back from their easy jog, they again separated into their groups: boys and girls. Lakes is blessed with a slight hill just outside their meeting place. The boys performed three strides and then a series of “wicket drills” up the hill. Coach Shepherd used verbal cues to help correct their form as they ran the wicket drills over the mini-hurdles, crediting the cues he learned from current York coach, Charlie Kern.
Coach West held a different philosophy for the girls, having them sprint down the hill while focusing on lengthening their stride and feeling fast. “Happy runners mean fast runners,” he said, smiling as the girls sprinted down the slight decline.
The Lakes program in general is an interesting blend of philosophies and compromises. Clearly, the closeness of the boys’ and girls’ programs has its advantages, but acting as each other’s assistant coaches can come with downsides. For example, the day after my visit, the varsity athletes competed at the Peoria Invitational (on the state meet course), while the junior varsity competed at Antioch’s Harland Invitational. This meant that Coach West would not be able to accompany his varsity girls to the Peoria Invitational, where they finished a best-ever second place. Instead, he went with both JV teams to Antioch. Since Coach West has kids and Coach Shepherd does not, it made sense for Shepherd to take the three-hour trip to Peoria while West took the 15-minute trip to Antioch’s course.
The two coaches are under no obligation to mimic each other as far as workouts or philosophies go, but an almost-inevitable shift to the center has been occurring in the three years they have coexisted as head coaches. Being exposed to another coach’s training methods and styles can help any coach realize what they are doing well and what they can do better. (You will note that this is part of the point of this article.)A coach exposed to another coach’s training methods and styles realizes what they can do better. Click To Tweet
Both coaches are convinced they have the best team in the school’s short history. The girls are hoping to qualify as a team for the first time since 2008, Coach West’s first year as head coach. Both programs also have potentially the best athlete in the school’s history. Senior Jeremy Wallace ran a school record 15:09.8 at the Peoria Invitational, while freshman Olivia Schmitt has come awfully close to the girls’ record.
Lake Zurich High School
Few teams in recent Illinois history have had the sustained success of the Lake Zurich Bears. The boys have not lost a dual meet since 2007, notching 66 wins in a row. They have also qualified for the IHSA State Championships eight years in a row, topping out with a runner-up finish in 2010. Last year they placed fifth, and return their top four athletes in 2016.
Practice at Lake Zurich High School starts in a cramped classroom with only 15 desks for the almost 50-strong team. If not for the throngs of short-short wearing kids seated all over the floor, you might confuse it with an actual class. Every athlete holds a binder and a pencil. Their coach, JB Hanson, sits on the desk in front and whistles to get their attention. By now, the athletes know the drill. They open up their binders, ready their pencils, and pay attention.
At least one day a year, each senior has the opportunity to present to the team. The binders are not only logbooks for the daily workouts, but a place where the athletes take notes on the presentations given by the seniors and coaches at the start of practice.
Today was senior Andrew Rifkin’s day to present. He gave four quotes and his interpretation of the quotes, and related each of the quotes to his own experience at Lake Zurich High School. Here are his quotes:
“Failure is just a fork in the road. You determine which fork to take.”
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” – Henry Ford
“Never let your head hang down, never give up and sit down in grief. Find another way. And don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.” – Satchel Paige
“The pain of regret is far worse than the pain of discipline.”
Andrew’s teammates took notes as he spoke. Getting almost 50 high school boys crammed up against each other in a crowded space to be quiet and listen is a small miracle. Andrew’s explanations of what the quotes meant to him were the best part of his presentation. When relating the Henry Ford quote, Andrew shared a personal story about how he got cut from the golf team his freshman year. He then went out for cross country, and turned the failure of getting cut from golf into the success of being on the cross country team.
Andrew ended the presentation with two open-ended challenges:
“What kind of legacy do you want to leave on the team or on the school in general?”
“How satisfied would you be if your high school career ended today?”
Speeches like that from a senior makes the coach’s job easy. JB Hanson added a couple of his own thoughts to Andrew’s comments, saying, “I would be in the category of not being satisfied with my high school career.” He talked about how he did not work all that hard in high school, but that he was unaware that he was not working hard.
He then went over personal best times from yesterday’s timed mile, noting that 22 athletes recorded their all-time bests. After he read each name, the team gave two claps in unison. Hanson made a special note of a few of them, mentioning one athlete who had a 22-second PR, and another who was only the third freshman in his coaching career to break 5:00 in the mile. Hanson then covered general information (practice time on Friday, meet stuff for Saturday, plans for the rest of the week) before sending the athletes out for the day’s activities.
The practice started outside, as it does every day at Lake Zurich, with a one-mile warmup on the track. That was followed by the captains leading some simple drills like toe walks, ankle walks, lunges, leg swings, etc. The track was busy with activity. In addition to the boys’ and girls’ cross country programs, the football team was practicing on the turf, and the soccer team was preparing for their game later in the afternoon. The boys dodged Gatorade jugs as they trotted their way around the track. On a 54-degree, windy, drizzly, overcast day, hundreds of athletes remained focused on the task at hand. Such is sports.
Stud athletes are like racehorses; they will go too hard if there’s no jockey up there pulling on the reins.
After the warmup, all of the members of the team headed off on an easy run, having looked up their mileage and paces on the wall of the team room earlier in practice. Almost all the athletes were prescribed between 5 and 8 miles. Tomorrow, the athletes will run just as far, but as part of a Fartlek workout. Knowing that, there was good motivation to not run too fast today, which is a bigger problem for top programs than running too slow is. Stud athletes are like racehorses; they will go too hard if there’s no jockey up there pulling on the reins.
And boy does Lake Zurich have some studs. One interesting aspect I noticed during the team meeting, which could certainly be inconsequential, was that the best athletes on the team (who also happened to be seniors) were seated on the floor. On many teams, the studs or the seniors would insist on sitting at the desks. Certainly, the desks are more comfortable and might be seen as a status symbol, like sitting in the back of the bus. But those kinds of symbols were apparently unimportant at Lake Zurich. The studs sat on the floor.
How those studs became studs is a fairly interesting story. For four years, opposing coaches have known about current senior, Matt Pereira. The long-legged, always-smiling Pereira finished as the runner-up at the 2013 North Suburban Conference Cross Country Championships as a freshman, then finished 69th at State. In track that year, he got even better, winning Conference in the 1600-meter and 3200-meter runs, then earning his first All-State honor by placing eighth in the 3200-meter run at the State Championships. Anybody who runs a 9:12.66 in the 3200 meters as a freshman has to be considered a prodigy.
Pereira took another step up as a sophomore in cross country, placing third at the State Championships with a 3-mile time of 14:22. He was joined at the state meet by two other members of the Lake Zurich class of 2017: twin brothers Kyle and Brian Griffith. Kyle ran cross country as a freshman, but Brian did not. Both went out for baseball in the spring of their freshmen year, but got cut and joined the track team. After running a 2:04 in the 800-meters, Brian realized he had some running talent and decided to give cross country a try in the fall of his sophomore year.
Brian Griffith finished fourth just among Lake Zurich underclassmen at 2014 IHSA State Cross Country Championships—Pereira, his brother Kyle, and freshman Pat Burns all beat him. Five months later, during their sophomore track season, Brian had passed them all and was winning invitationals.
That was a scary thought for area coaches. Matt Pereira, the kid who had dominated the conference the past year, might not even be the best runner in the sophomore class at Lake Zurich. Brian Griffith and Matt Pereira both made the IHSA State Track & Field Championships individually and on a relay that spring. Griffith placed 11th in the 800-meter final with a time of 1:55.92, while Pereira did not advance out of the 1600-meter prelims. They combined with Kyle Griffith and senior Justin Shim to finish ninth in the 4x800m Relay, with a time of 7:51.30.
Both Griffith brothers made a huge leap their junior year of cross country. After being beaten by Pereira by 84 seconds at the 2014 IHSA State Cross Country Championships, Brian Griffith finished just one second behind his teammate in 2015. Pereira was fifth overall in 14:29, while Griffith was seventh in 14:30. Kyle Griffith improved tremendously as well, taking 45 seconds off his 2014 time to finish 21st overall in a time of 14:44. Lake Zurich had three of the seven best juniors in the entire state.
Matt Pereira made history a few weeks after the State Championships, but for a bit it looked like the long high school season had cashed him out. He finished a disappointing 67th at the Nike Cross Midwest Regional Championship. But a week later, Pereira rebounded in a major way by finishing seventh at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional Championships, running an amazing time of 15:13.6 on the hilly 5000-meter course at the University of Wisconsin Parkside. That performance qualified him for the most prestigious high school cross country race in the United States, the Foot Locker National Championships, where he finished 24th in the nation. Drew Hunter, the Virginia Prep athlete who set the indoor high school record in the mile with a time of 3:57.81 a few months later, won the race going away.
All three juniors made the State Championships individually in the spring of 2016: Brian Griffith (800m), Kyle Griffith (1600m), and Matt Pereira (3200m). Brian Griffith was once again the top athlete, running 1:54.64 to make the 800-meter final, where he finished 10th.
Coach JB Hanson has been there through it all. There were precious few meets remaining as I visited his practice; just Conference, Sectionals and, almost assuredly, State.
How Do These Programs Compare to One Another?
What you have read so far is just a snapshot of one practice from each program. Below, I will compare and contrast how the programs operate on a daily basis.
All three schools have a different setup for their coaching staffs. Grayslake Central completely combines their boys’ and girls’ programs. James Centella is the head coach for both programs, and both of his assistants help with both programs as well. Lakes has a separate head coach for boys and girls, but no assistants—they’re it. Travis Shepherd is the head coach for the boys, while Keith West is the head coach for the girls. Both act as each other’s assistant. Lake Zurich has perhaps the most desirable coaching scenario, with each program having their own head coach and their own assistant. The two programs help each other out here and there, but ultimately, they run independently.
Coach Centella at Grayslake Central said he gets a lot of his workout and training ideas from Drew Hunter’s coach, Tom Schwartz. This is the second time I have mentioned Drew Hunter in this article, so he must be pretty good. Basically, they do two workouts a week at GLC. If they have two meets that they run hard in, those are their only workouts for the week. Whether they run hills or not is dependent on where the championship meets will be at the end of the season. This year, with nothing but pancake-flat courses on the horizon, the need to train for hills is minimal. Part of their philosophy includes some top speed running. Many coaches believe that the “strides” their athletes do before or after a run constitute top speed running. Coach Centella will occasionally have his athletes do 6x40m top speed with an easy one-lap recovery jog.
Travis Shepherd at Lakes runs a relatively standard Jack Daniels program, with some Greg McMillan wrinkles thrown in. They were able to get a grant from the Lakes Booster Club for 22 heart rate/GPS monitors, which help them immensely in their training. Lakes does what Shepherd calls “two and a half” workouts a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with meets on Saturdays. Their long runs max out at 90 minutes for the elite athletes, and they do a long run at least every 10 days. Shepherd believes in running V02 intervals in October, which would include around 3 miles’ worth of repeats at race pace with full recovery. On “easy” days, Shepherd will sometimes have his athletes do lactic acid tolerance training, 4x300m repeats at half-mile pace (45-50 seconds) with a 400m jog recovery. They also lift weights twice a week, mainly doing mini-band work and power lifts. Coach Shepherd was kind enough to share a two-week training block with me.
Keith West coaches the Lakes girls using what he calls a “watered-down” version of the training he learned at Loyola University (Chicago) from his old coach, Gordon Thomson. He adapts their training every year. This year, he started their hard workouts a month later in the season, which has shown immediate benefits. The athletes seemed fresher in their early-season races this year than they had in the past. West also has the top athletes running about 25 percent more than they have in the past, but that is due to those athletes upping their mileage in the summer. He states that their off-season work was better this past summer than it has ever been, which is a big reason the Eagle girls are having such a remarkable season. One of his favorite workouts is running a tempo on Wednesdays, with the girls doing four or five 1200m repeats with about 90 seconds of rest. They do not lift much, and instead do injury-prevention circuits.
When I asked Lake Zurich coach, JB Hanson, about their training, he replied, “We’re a Paavo program.” Paavo, of course, is Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” who won nine Olympic gold medals and set 22 world records. Part of the Paavo program means Coach Hanson will assign the athletes to different groups, levels A-N, depending on their ability. He has a bigger range of athletes than most teams, by virtue of the fact that his top athlete finished 24th in the nation last year. Unlike Grayslake Central and Lakes, he bases their distance runs on miles, not minutes. They complete an average of three workouts a week once they have a base under them.
Pre-Run and Post-Run
Thankfully, most distance coaches have seen the value of strength and coordination in their athletes, and have adapted their practice routines accordingly.
All the practices I visited fell under the “easy run” moniker. Grayslake Central and Lakes both had pre-meet days, while Lake Zurich had a Critical Threshold (CT) day. Yet, while the norm used to be for coaches to just let their athletes trot their miles and then send them home, all three programs I visited did some sort of balance, coordination, functional strength, and dynamic stretching activity both before and after practice. All had some sort of stride or race-pace running. None of them did any static stretching. Thankfully, most distance coaches have seen the value of strength and coordination in their athletes, and have adapted their practice routines accordingly.
Grayslake Central is located right next to a park and a middle school, which both provide lots of grass and paved trails. They only need to cross one street to get to a good chunk of prime running space, so that is where they spend the majority of their time. Lakes has perhaps an even better setup. They have a crushed-gravel trail wrapping around on the west side of their high school, and plenty of athletic fields surrounding the school grounds as well. In fact, they have the ability to field a very nice cross country course right on their school grounds. Just outside the door where they meet as a team, they also have a beautiful hill at about a 5-percent incline. The hill, which has both a paved and a grass section, is wonderful for all sorts of training. Lake Zurich has the least-advantageous setup, being located right in the middle of suburbia. But they have a lot of field space on their campus as well, plus plenty of delightful neighborhoods in the surrounding area suitable for running in.
Unfortunately, all three programs have to deal with constant dual meets on their schedule. Most high school athletic programs follow a somewhat similar schedule to what the college programs in their sport follow. For example, high school and college football teams play one game a week. High school and college basketball teams play two and occasionally three games a week. But in cross country, when most college programs are running one race every other week, these high school athletes are expected to race twice a week. Though these weekday dual meets can have some advantages, ultimately, most coaches who are subjected to them feel they are a chore.
Grayslake Central and Lakes are both in the newly established Northern Lake Country Conference. The teams are required to run four duals meets (some are actually triangular meets) against each other in order to determine a “dual meet” champion. Lake Zurich belongs in the North Suburban Conference, which is where Lakes was until the conference split up in the summer of 2016. The conference used to have two different seven-team divisions, and the dual meets would determine the division champions. Now there are eight teams in the conference, and no divisions. The dual meets, to the dismay of basically every single coach, count for 25 percent of the conference championship. In theory, your team could win the North Suburban Conference meet and not be crowned conference champions.
Lake Zurich has a 66-game winning streak in dual meets. They run their athletes hard when they have to in order to win, and at other times run the meets they figure they can win more easily as a tempo workout. Grayslake Central operates basically the same way. They only run hard if they have to, especially since they only run two workouts per week, and a hard meet counts as a workout. Lakes generally takes the same approach, and will sometimes even rest their varsity from an invitational.
Being part of a team is, of course, more than just workouts and exercise. That is a training group, not a team. A high school team, especially, needs ways to keep the athletes interested. All three programs I covered have active Twitter accounts, which has become essential in our internet age. (You can follow Grayslake Central, Lakes, and Lake Zurich at these links.)
Grayslake Central and Lakes both have “theme days” at practice, where the athletes spice it up by dressing in pajamas, mismatched clothes, neon, or as twins. Fun apparel days were mentioned in my article, “The Power of Apparel in Sport,” so I am happy to see such days working so well for top programs. Lake Zurich runs a little bit more serious of a program, and does not do apparel days. They do, however, have the freshman boys face off against the freshman girls in a dance-off the Monday after the conference meet. The freshman boys, Coach Hanson noted, have dominated the previous battles.
There are dozens of other little nuances here and there that make each of these programs unique, from spaghetti dinners to fundraisers to team outings, to a multitude of other memorable activities most athletes are certain to remember more than their average mile pace.
All three programs I visited were very comparable in certain ways and very unique in others. All the coaches are constantly tweaking their programs to try to get the best and most enjoyable experience for their athletes. Just following them around for one practice was extremely entertaining for me, and I thank them all tremendously for agreeing to be a part of it. Hopefully, all of you reading this article can take something from one of these programs to help make your own team better.
And now for the results:
In the first year of the Northern Lake County Conference, the Grayslake Central boys scored a dominating victory with just 25 points. The Rams swept the top three spots, with Jake Aho (14:14), Matt Aho (14:32), and Eli Minsky (15:14). Lakes finished second with 52 points, led by Jeremy Wallace (15:15) in fifth place. Nine of the top twelve places in the eight-team conference went to athletes from Grayslake Central and Lakes. On the girls’ side, Grant Community High School won with 41 points, while Lakes earned second with 59 points, and Grayslake Central came in third with 74 points. Lakes freshman Olivia Schmitt (18:19) finished third, followed in fourth by Megan Girmscheid (18:28) of Grayslake Central.
Grayslake Central was not the only team I covered that dominated their conference meet with a 1-2-3 finish. Lake Zurich scored just 21 points at the North Suburban Conference meet, with Brian Griffith (15:17), Matt Pereira (15:22), and Kyle Griffith (15:31) sweeping the top three spots. Collin Luell (15:45) of Zion-Benton was the only athlete to break up a 1-2-3-4 Lake Zurich sweep, beating LZ’s Patrick Burns (15:47) for fourth place.
The goal for all of the programs I covered was to qualify for the IHSA State Championships, which is only possible by finishing among the top five teams at the Sectional Championships. All the teams I covered first made the Sectional by qualifying out of the Regional Championships.
Grayslake Central and Lakes were both placed in the Belvidere Sectional of Class AA, easily the most loaded Sectional on both the boys’ and girls’ sides. For the boys, four of the top seven and nine of the top 24 ranked teams in the state would compete at Belvidere. Grayslake Central came in seeded fourth in the state, but second in the Sectional behind Crystal Lake Central. Lakes came in ranked 11th in the state and fifth in the Sectional. The girls’ Sectional looked to be even tougher, hosting five of the top six ranked teams in the state! Lakes was ranked sixth in the state and fifth in the Sectional, while Grayslake Central was ranked 14th in the State and seventh in the Sectional. Only 25 teams total would qualify for the State Championships, and the Belvidere Sectional for both boys and girls had nine of the top 25 ranked teams in the state. Just five from each would qualify.
Lake Zurich would face some stiff competition in their Class AAA Sectional in Waukegan as well. The Bears were ranked fourth overall in the State, just ahead of the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams from Hersey and Prospect, respectively. Overall, the Waukegan Sectional was not as deep in its division as the Belvidere Sectional though, with only five teams ranked in the top 25.
The girls were up first on Saturday, October 29, at the Belvidere Sectional. With so many top-ranked teams, there was little room for error. Certainly, this was a race the Lakes girls would like to have back. Needing to finish in the top five to advance, they finished eighth, just 14 points away from their State dreams. Adding to the sting was the fact that their top runner, Olivia Schmitt, missed qualifying as an individual by one place. She ran 18:19 to place 15th overall, and finished so close to the final individual qualifier—Sophia Oury of Hampshire—that she could have almost reached out and touched her.
Which girls’ teams earned that fifth-place spot and a trip to the State Championships? Grayslake Central. Despite having their top athlete, Elizabeth Aho (yes, she’s related to Jack and Matt), finish in just 28th place, the Ram ladies crammed all of their top five in the first 57 runners to sneak away with a team score of 212. They narrowly edged out Boylan Central Catholic (214), Woodstock (214), and Lakes (226) for that coveted fifth spot.
The boys’ race would be just as exciting, especially if your last name was Aho. Jack (14:36) and Matt (14:54) once again smoked the competition for a 1-2 finish. Their teammates did their jobs as well, and Grayslake Central came away with their second Sectional team title in a row. Just like their female counterparts, the Lakes boys came in seeded fifth in the Sectional and left with an eighth place finish. The silver living for the boys, however, was that senior Jeremy Wallace’s 12th place finish in 15:35 earned him a trip to the State Championships, just the third athlete in program history to do so.
Over at the AAA Sectional in Waukegan, the Lake Zurich boys once again imitated Grayslake Central by finishing 1-2 individually. Brian Griffith edged out teammate Matt Pereira, this time 14:51 to 15:00. Kyle Griffith finished sixth in 15:14, and the Bears easily took home their second Sectional title in a row with a score of 79.
Both the boys’ and girls’ teams from Lakes ended their season three places away from their ultimate goal. Despite the outcome from the most difficult Sectional in the state, it would be hard to argue against both programs experiencing their most successful year ever. True, the Lakes girls made the State Championships as a team in 2008, but was that collection of girls better than the current crop? At Sectionals on the same course back in 2008, the top five Lakes girls ran 18:50, 18:51, 19:27, 19:57, and 20:53 (average time 19:35). This year’s team ran 18:19, 19:20, 19:54, 20:00 and 20:03 (average time 19:31). The 2008 team finished third, even though there were only four Sectionals back then. The 2016 team finished eighth, with the teams in AA spread out over five Sectionals instead of four.
Evidence of the distance runners in Illinois getting better can be shown on the guys’ side as well. Ryan Prais of Lakes, who qualified for State individually in 2009, 2010, and 2012, got faster on the State meet course every year, but got a worse place every year, too! He ran 15:31 for 16th in 2009, 15:22 for 35th in 2010, and 15:19 for 40th in 2012.
With coaches learning from each other, sharing and copying ideas, and helping nourish what has become an incredible running community, I hope this great sport will continue to flourish, and the times will continue to drop.
The IHSA State Cross Country Championships are quite the spectacle. Hosted at idyllic Detweiller Park in Peoria, Illinois, the meet has seen the exploits of such running greats as Craig Virgin, Tom Graves, Jim Spivey, Donald Sage, Jorge Torres, Matt Withrow, Evan Jager, Chris Derrick, and Lukas Verzbicas. On Saturday, November 5, it will host this year’s crop of exceptional talent.
Jack Aho of Grayslake Central has a great chance to repeat at the IHSA Class AA State Cross Country champion. Brian Griffith and Matt Pereira of Lake Zurich should both contend for the individual title in Class AAA. Their senior-laden teams have a chance to earn a trophy by finishing in the top three. Many of the athletes profiled in this article will have a chance to earn All-State honors by finishing in the top 25 in their division.