Area distance runners among state’s best

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At the 2009 Class 3A state track and field meet, only one girl from the CSL competed in the finals in the three distance events.

Maine South’s Kristen Zillmer, a junior at the time and now a standout runner at Illinois State, finished eighth in the 800 meters.

That all changed the following season.

Led by the Class of 2013, the North Shore became a pipeline to O’Brien Stadium in Charleston and started producing a steady stream of state finalists.

Last season, eight girls from the conference earned trips to the finals in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200.

“What you are seeing in the CSL is a microcosm of the whole state,” New Trier distance coach John Burnside said. “This senior class is so strong all across the state. Everybody’s had to raise their games. You have to be great if you want to compete in this state now, and it continues to get better and better.”

In 2009, the CSL had zero runners in the 33-runner field for the 3,200. Last season, the conference had five in the top 30 for a total of 12 finalists in the last three state meets.

What’s more, at least one CSL runner has placed in the 800 and 1,600 races for the past three seasons.

Courtney Ackerman, a fixture at the state meet during her first three seasons, agreed that distance running — in the area and beyond — has gotten better throughout her time in high school.

“It’s the depth,” said the Illinois-bound Ackerman, who still is recovering from a stress fracture in her left shin suffered during the fall. “It’s so much more competitive.”

In the Class 3A 1,600 last year, eight runners broke 5 minutes, including Ackerman, who ran a 4:54.45 to place second. In the same race in 2009, four girls eclipsed 5 minutes.

“It’s so much more difficult to get downstate now,” said Maine South distance coach Jeff Downing, who tutored Zillmer. “Obviously, the twins have been two of the best, and that’s who you try to run up against around here. New Trier distance is now like what Evanston is to sprinting.”

Also at New Trier are senior Jessica Ackerman, who plans to run at Princeton, and sophomore standout Mimi Smith. Jessica Ackerman recently broke a long-standing indoor record at New Trier by running a 2:17.00 in the 800 at the CSL South’s indoor meet last month.

At Maine South, the Hawks have two stars in senior Megan Lemersal and junior Emily Leonard, who was 16th in the 3,200 as a freshman and 30th last season.

Lemersal, who struggled with a back injury during the indoor season, has been a mainstay on distance relay teams for the Hawks.

Over at Glenbrook North, senior Valerie Bobart has twice been a finalist in the 3,200, taking 26th as a junior and 28th as a freshman.

“The kids who were once the best in the CSL and area, now are part of the conversation as the best in the state,” Burnside said.~.

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