Paul Vandersteen has become accustomed to coaching elite male runners as coach of the highly successful Neuqua Valley program.
But Vandersteen cannot help but feel optimistic when discussing the physical and mental attributes of Nick Bushelle, the Wildcats’ top returning member of their Class 3A seventh-place team from last fall.
“(Bushelle) is just an incredible worker,” Vandersteen said. “He takes no short cuts. He is one of the smartest racers I have ever coached. It will be fun to see what he can do this fall.”
Over the course of the last seven boys cross country seasons, Vandersteen has made graduation losses seem inconsequential as the Wildcats have never dropped an Upstate Eight Conference championship during the span.
Neuqua Valley captured the inaugural Class 3A state meet in 2007 and added a second state championship two years later.
Last year was only the second time in the last six seasons Neuqua Valley has not returned to Naperville with a state trophy.
“We have a system that works,” Vandersteen said. “The kids now understand what it takes to be a champion. The model of success just keeps getting transferred.”
In addition to Bushelle, sophomore Connor Horn was expected to be one of the Wildcats’ top runners.
But the sophomore is doubtful to compete this season due to injury.
“I just don’t know if there is enough time to get him back into the lineup,” Vandersteen said.
Vandersteen is equally convinced Daniel Weiss, Michael Widmann, Matt Horsely, Grayson Jenkins and Shiva Singh can launch Neuqua Valley on another state run this fall.
“Their record speaks for itself,” Waubonsie Valley coach Kevin Rafferty said of the Wildcats’ decorated history since 2006.
“It looks like Daniel is our clear No. 2,” Vandersteen said of the upcoming season. “From there, it’s a slew of guys that I don’t know yet.”
Vandersteen has anointed respective reigning state champion and runner-up York and O’Fallon to lock heads once again in Peoria come November.
But all guesses are off from there for the veteran coach.
“That’s going to be a barn-burner this year,” Vandersteen said of the Class 3A state meet. “I think (York) is going to be better than they were last year. There could be eight to 10 teams that could get that third sport. There are more teams in the fray than I can ever remember. We’re hoping to be there again.”
DuPage Valley Conference rivals Naperville North and Naperville Central made it a clean sweep for the city out of the Class 3A sectionals last year.
“Naperville North is going to be very good,” Vandersteen predicted. “Naperville Central is a team on the rise.”