A sport he can fall back on: Plainfield South quarterback Niko Schultz tries cross-country

The Plainfield South senior has been an athlete in search of a chance to compete going on five months now.

SHARE A sport he can fall back on: Plainfield South quarterback Niko Schultz tries cross-country
Plainfield South’s Niko Schultz sprints around the curve of the track during practice.

Plainfield South’s Niko Schultz sprints around the curve of the track during practice.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

It’s not easy, but Plainfield South senior Niko Schultz is trying to keep everything in perspective.

He has been an athlete in search of a chance to compete going on five months now. 

He’s the Cougars’ starting quarterback in the fall and also one of the state’s top middle-distance runners in the spring. At least, that’s the way it is in normal years. But it’s 2020, when high school sports have been sidelined for months because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Schultz’s track season was canceled after four indoor meets, and his football season has been pushed to next spring.

When the news came down about the latter decision by the IHSA, “I was taken by surprise, for sure,” Schultz said. “I had to tell myself, ‘This is not just me. This is every single athlete in America.’ These are strange times.”

So strange that Schultz, who hadn’t run a competitive race longer than a mile, is tackling a new challenge as a member of South’s cross-country team.

It was the idea of Jason Crowe, the Cougars’ boys track and cross-country coach.

“[Schultz is] a great young man,” Crowe said. “He’s one of those kids who comes along once in a coaching career.”

When Illinois’ abbreviated track season was shut down in March, Schultz had the state’s best time in the 800 meters at 1 minute, 56.99 seconds. With football postponed, Crowe reasoned, why not use the time to help Schultz get a head start on training for next track season?

Crowe promised not to pile on the miles that distance runners normally would put in.

“He’s definitely speed-based,” Crowe said. “We’re not going to screw that up with cross-country. A lot of stuff is going to help him with track.”

Schultz didn’t need a hard sell. Between the prospect of an even longer layoff or trying a new sport, the choice was easy.

“When you don’t go competing for eight, nine, 10 months, you kind of lose the competitive drive,” he said. “I love competition. I compete in anything.”

That spirit comes out in his wish list for his first abbreviated cross-country season, which began Monday with preseason workouts and will end Oct. 24.

“I guess my goal for the season is to break 16 minutes [for three miles],” Schultz said.

Nothing would surprise Crowe.

“We’re going to find out pretty quick,” he said, noting the Cougars will have a time trial this weekend.

Whatever happens, Schultz plans to embrace the moment even as he knows the chances of playing football next spring depend on Illinois getting a handle on the pandemic.

“I’m playing it by ear once football season comes,” he said. “If it doesn’t [happen], there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Schultz isn’t the only football player branching out this fall. Farther west in Plano, football coach Rick Ponx has been encouraging his players to stay busy. 

“I want to see them competing,” he said. “That will make them better football players.”

There was some pushback initially.

“At first they said, ‘I don’t want to miss lifting, I don’t want to miss football [contact days],’” Ponx said.

But he told his players any conflicts could be worked out, and now several Reapers are out for golf. Senior defensive back Xavier Padilla and junior quarterback Carson Gill are two who took the plunge.

Padilla used to go out to the driving range with his buddies, so he had some familiarity with the sport. But actually playing 18 holes is different from just winding up and smacking a ball as far as possible.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “It took us a second to get ahold of how to swing a golf club that’s not a driver.”

Like Schultz, Padilla appreciates the chance to go out and compete. He had Aug. 30 circled on the calendar as the Reapers’ football opener against Aurora Central Catholic. Now he’s focused on Aug. 24, when Plano opens its golf schedule against Parkview Christian.

“I still got the competitive spirit,” Padilla said. “I’m going to give golf everything I’ve got.”

And if football does come to pass with practice starting in mid-February and games as soon as early March, well, he’ll embrace that, too.

“I want to play in the snow,” Padilla said.

Gill, meanwhile, just wants to have something to do. 

“This is going to keep me busy,” Gill said. “Otherwise I’d probably be bored out of my mind.”

Though he’s been golfing with his dad off and on for years, Gill says he’s “kind of rusty.”

But that doesn’t mean he has low expectations. Gill shot a 41 in a practice round Wednesday and told Plano coach Scott Smith, “I want to be hitting in the 30s by next week.”

There’s something else on his and Padilla’s to-do list, as well. With the IHSA reorganizing sport seasons from the traditional fall-winter-spring model to add a “summer” component, it could be possible to be a four-sport athlete. Gill and Padilla are both looking at doing golf, basketball, football and baseball.

That sounds like too much work for some, but Gill embraces the opportunity offered up in this strangest of all school years.

“My mom asks me that all the time, ‘Don’t you want a break?’” he said. “No, I like being out there, getting out of the house and doing things.”

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