The cross country season begins its four-weekend run to state prominence this week with conference meets dominating the spotlight.
“I look at (the Upstate Eight Valley championship) as the gateway to the postseason,” said Neuqua Valley boys coach Paul Vandersteen.
The Wildcats are seeking their ninth consecutive conference title on Saturday at Lords Park in Elgin.
The Upstate Eight will run both the River and Valley divisions in one combined race.
“But it will be scored separately,” Neuqua Valley girls coach Tim McCoskey said.
The Neuqua Valley boys will be prohibitive favorites as the program has enjoyed another sterling season behind Connor Horn, Michael Widmann, Daniel Weiss and Dominic Dina.
“I think the No. 1 runaway is Neuqua,” Waubonsie Valley coach Kevin Rafferty said.
“I don’t really look at the other teams,” Vandersteen admitted. “I just look at ourselves and see how we’re going to perform. I look at us competing against everybody, not just our side. I see St. Charles East and Batavia (as the top competing programs). I would prefer to see (conference) all scored together.”
Unlike the other local programs, the Wildcats, the consensus third-ranked team in Class 3A, will be shifted south for the postseason.
“We have the top-four ranked teams in our sectional (Bremen),” Vandersteen said of defending state champion Hinsdale Central, Lyons and Sandburg. “This is the time where we start to do the sharpening workouts.”
The Wildcats’ squad is so interchangeable that Vandersteen was unsure of whom the other three starters for conference would be five days before the competition.
“I haven’t even told the guys yet (who else would compete in the varsity race),” Vandersteen said.
Rafferty referred to the combined race but separate scoring system in the conference as a “goofy compromise.”
But the Warriors’ coach does see added benefits of competing against the eight River programs as well.
“We are looking at the fifth seed (overall) and improving on that,” Rafferty said. “(The format) is kind of the best of both worlds for the conference. That way the smaller River schools don’t feel like they are competing against the bigger Valley schools.”
Waubonsie Valley will send its top five of Jon Vollrath, Riley Blackmore, Justin Caton, Justin Colvin and Trevor Bon to combat their league rivals.
Head of steam
The Neuqua Valley girls program enters the conference meet with confidence after capturing the West Aurora Blackhawk Stampede last weekend.
“We didn’t expect to win that,” said McCoskey.
“We also understand that some really good teams (including three-time defending Class 2A state champion Yorkville) didn’t run their full squads,” McCoskey said.
McCoskey said state-ranked River programs Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles East are measuring sticks for the Wildcats.
“Metea should be our main competition (in the Valley),” McCoskey said.