Season preview: New Trier poised for another top finish at state

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The New Trier girls cross country team returns its top five runners from last year’s squad that finished third in Class 3A.

Defending state champion Mimi Smith is back for her senior season, and she’ll be joined by the Schmidt sisters — Kelli, a junior, and Molly, a sophomore — as well as junior Oona Jung-Beeman and sophomore Cara Keleher.

Although having all that talent returning — as well as a number of strong freshmen and sophomores who could contribute by season’s end — makes the Trevians a strong contender for a state title, coach John Burnside’s message throughout the preseason has been about personal improvement.

“We can only control what we can control,” Burnside said. “Our goal is to be better than last year, and really our expectation is that this group will be better than they [were] last year. Whether or not that means we make the step up into second or the step up into [first], if these girls get to that state meet and run better than they did last year, that’s our goal. If that means fourth, then that means fourth.”

Glenbrook North

Glenbrook North’s trademark in recent years has been a solid pack. The Spartans have had strong pace setters, and runners lower in the lineup working hard to catch up to them.

That will likely be the case this year as well, according to Glenbrook North coach Bob LeBlanc.

Senior Dana Lee, sophomore Heather Schlitz and junior Josey Hill have formed a strong lead group during practices, and LeBlanc says they finish every workout right next to each other.

“You can see that they’re pushing each other to go faster,” LeBlanc said. “They’re looking at their watches, timing miles, knowing where they should be when. And [they’re] just helping each other through everything.”

Seniors Kiera Abramson and Jordan Crane, junior Jessica Lee and sophomore Samantha Crane are trying to close the gap between themselves and the top group.

Glenbrook South

Glenbrook South’s top six runners share two characteristics.

First, they’re young. The Titans are led by juniors Anne Brennan and Rose O’Grady. Sophomores Amelia Papajohn and Katie Woodrick, along with freshmen Emily Noone and Lizzy Shaw, figure to contribute this year.

They’re also running very similar times in practice. Glenbrook South coach Fred Kocian believes that will carry over to meets this year.

“I would anticipate that they would run together,” Kocian said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish because to be a successful cross country team, either you need a runner who’s way far ahead — a lot of the best schools in the state will have a quality No. 1 runner in the top 10 in the state — or you have to have a team that is good, that their 1-5 [runners] … have a split of less than a minute. That’s what I’m hoping we’re going to be.”

Regina

Regina last qualified as a team for the state meet in 2011, and Regina coach Laura Papageorgiou is confident this year’s team will get back to state.

“We’re going to state. I know we are,” Papageorgiou said. “They worked really hard all summer. We did a time trial the other day, and in the time trial alone, basically my top seven all … had a [personal record] or they beat their first race time from last year. They’re already steps ahead from where they were at the end of the season last year.”

The Panthers’ squad features seniors Kate McDonough, Audrey Jahns, Michelle Delana, Niamh Ryan and Grace Spiewak.

Those girls all trained hard during the summer, Papageorgiou said, and several also went to the Sub 5 camp, which is a running-specific camp that, among other things, helped with the mental side of the sport. Papageorgiou said she can see a clear difference in her runners’ determination during their training this year.

Evanston

Rosette Ochoa has taken over as Evanston’s coach for Zachary Herrmann, who is starting graduate school this fall. Although he handed over the program, Herrmann led the Wildkits’ training during the summer and said in an email that it was more extensive than it’s ever been, and participation was up compared to previous summers.

Loyola

The Ramblers finished 16th in Class 3A a year ago, but lost Sarah Kelley, Jackie McDonnell and Samantha Evans to graduation. All three were part of Loyola’s state lineup in 2013.

Roycemore

Roycemore launched a cross country program this year and, with so many athletes who are new to the sport, the goal for many of the co-ed team’s 16 runners is to simply finish a three-mile race.

“I think they’re a little worried about not being able to finish the race,” Roycemore coach Jessica Wunder said. “But we’re trying to tell them that, ‘Try to finish, and then keep trying to improve. Keep trying to do better every single time — whether it’s a meet or whatever.’ If they can keep that in their heads, I think they’ll all learn to love it.”

Of the team members, five are boys and 11 are girls. The top runners include junior Baikleem Choi and senior Matthew Ormesher on the boys team, and senior Sachi Toepp, Hannah Ellis and freshman Sarah Nathanson on the girls squad.

Maine South

Emily Leonard’s graduation in the spring means the Maine South girls cross country team no longer has a four-time all-state finisher and likely can’t rely on a top-flight runner to lead the team to the state meet.

“We’ve been trying to run with the philosophy of having everyone run together and see how far we get with a consistent pack,” Maine South coach Jeff Downing said of early-season practices. “The hope is that different days, different people will step out.”

The Hawks’ leaders in practice thus far have been juniors Julia Sirvinskas, Kalina Gardiner and Olivia Ryan, Downing said. They set the pace, and the goal is for the team’s other runners to keep up with them. Maine South has a lot of depth aside from those three, as sophomores Anna Seenarain, Maura Lally and Olivia Holmes are in line to contribute to the varsity.

Maine South qualified for the Class 3A state meet as a team all four years of Leonard’s career and, even though she’s now running at Dayton, the hope is that with pack training and team-wide improvement the Hawks can extend their streak of state berths to five.

“It may not happen the same way, and it may not quite come together until the last [minute],” Downing said of state. “Hopefully it will at the end, but you’ve just got to stay patient and stay on the course.”

Ridgewood

Ridgewood figured to have a nice core of young runners returning this year since four freshmen were in the Rebels’ top seven last season, but sophomore Kinga Sojka is the only runner who decided to return.

Although she’s currently the lone female cross country runner at Ridgewood, Rebels coach Tony Guagenti and the boys team have made sure she isn’t by herself very often.

“We practice together, so we get her in [workouts] with a couple boys who will be near the same speed as her in practice,” Guagenti said. “She trains with them on workout days, and then I’ll try to go running with her on days that we’re not out doing workouts. If we’re out on the roads, I’ll try to run with her on those days, so I try not to keep her solo. We try to show her that she’s just as important representing Ridgewood as any of the boys are.”

Niles West

Senior Christine Mujica, who finished 97th at the Class 3A state meet a year ago, returns for Niles West. Mujica is joined by senior Katherine De Lara as well as juniors Nicole Camburn and Danielle Karp, but Mujica is the fastest runner on the squad.

Since Niles West doesn’t have a runner who can challenge Mujica in training, Wolves coach Anne Heselton and the team’s other coaches have had to get a little creative in finding ways to test Mujica.

“It is very difficult for her teammates to push her so we bike alongside her for some runs and she has had male pacers for a few workouts,” Heselton said via email. “She enjoys pushing herself and is a great example for her teammates.”

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