WESTERN SPRINGS — The Maine South boys cross country team likely turned some heads with its fifth-place finish at last fall’s Class 3A cross country state meet. It was the Hawks’ best performance in school history.
The accomplishment certainly caught the attention of Henry Mierzwa, then a sophomore midfielder on the school’s varsity soccer team.
Mierzwa, a talented distance runner on the track team, decided he would devote himself exclusively to running.
“I was considering (cross country) last year. But that team, when they did so well at state, it was such a turning point and I was like, ‘I really have to do this. I want to race. So, (joining cross country) is what I decided,” he said.
Mierzwa informed Hawks coach Greg Nordahl of his decision to switch sports at the beginning of the summer, and Mierzwa has spent the last few months training with his cross country teammates.
In his first major cross country race, Mierzwa finished seventh (15 minutes, 23.65 seconds) at the Lions’ Pride Invitational on Saturday at Lyons. The Hawks (77 points) came in fourth at the 12-team meet.
“Not bad for a junior who has never run a big cross country race in his entire life,” Nordahl said. “He’s demonstrated himself to be an extremely competitive, aggressive, tough-minded, hard-working and positive force on our team.
“He’s a mentally tough kid. He’s taken the lead. I don’t have to teach that kid anything. He’s tough!”
Mierzwa, a junior, said Saturday’s cross country invite initially was a little daunting. But his adjustment period seemed to last only a matter of minutes.
“I’m used to 12 guys (in track) and this is like hundreds. It’s a bit scary at first,” he said. “But once you get out and are racing, most of the people are behind you anyway, so it doesn’t affect me too much.”
The addition of Mierzwa appears to be just what the Maine South team needed after the graduation of Jon Vaccaro, Robert Taylor, Kevin Dolan and Stephen Lavelle — the top four Hawks at state last year.
The returning group features senior Jack Carpenter, who came in second on Saturday, junior Paul D’Ambrosio (13th), sophomore Ralph Patejunas (25th), junior Aiden Gaskin (30th) and senior Paul Tobin, who is recovering from injury and took 38th. Mierzwa believes his presence can help the Hawks get back among the state’s elite.
“I think they had a solid four already, and they needed another guy,” Mierzwa said. “I can be that guy and I want to see them get to state. I want to be part of that team that gets to state. That also was part was of the decision (to switch sports).”
Mierzwa said he does miss playing soccer and that he kicks the ball on occasion with his younger brother Philip, a freshman on the Maine South sophomore soccer team.
But Henry Mierzwa said running represents his best chance to compete in a sport in college.
Nordahl said Mierzwa’s early performances in cross country indicate he’s capable of accomplishing plenty this season.
“If you come out and run that well at the beginning of the season, I think you have a pretty good shot at maybe being an all-state (top-25) athlete (at state),” Nordahl said. “We’ll see where he takes it from here. This is his first year of training and we’re putting miles on his legs, but being careful not to break him.
“But he’s responded to everything we’ve done to him.”