Three weeks into the cross country season, the Kaneland boys have exceeded the expectations of most observers.
They opened the season on Aug. 29 with a second-place finish at the 15-team Sycamore Invitational at Afton Forest Preserve in DeKalb. Team-wise, DeKalb won the meet with 53 points, followed by the Knights (88) and Sycamore (97). Individually, two of the state’s top class 2A runners, Kaneland senior Matt Richtman and Sterling senior Jake Gebhardt, waged a knock down-drag out battle over the 3-mile course with Richtman finally prevailing 15:20 to 15:22.
Sophomore Daniel Occhipinti (16:42) finished in 12th place for the Knights, followed by junior Jacob Wielgos (17:00) in 22nd, senior Sam Webster (17:05) in 24th and senior Peyton Heiser (17:15) in 29th – an encouraging season-opening 33-second spread between their No. 2 and No. 5 finishers.
Kaneland upgraded its meet schedule this season with the addition of the Crystal Lake South Invitational on Sept. 2 – a 17-team meet dominated by 14 3A schools that is held on one of the most challenging and hilly courses in Illinois. There, on the Veteran Acres Park 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) layout, the Knights scored 115 points for a third-place finish behind champion Dundee-Crown (58 pts) and second place Rolling Meadows (114).
Individually, Richtman (16:19) placed second behind Crystal Lake South senior Jack Becker (16:06) – a 3A all-state performer last fall and the McHenry County champion earlier this season. Behind Richtman, was Occhipinti in 17th place. But the story of the meet for the Knights was Aidan Lodwig, Webster and Wielgos finishing 31st, 32nd and 33rd in 18:05 in the field of 185 runners – the kind of pack running that can take Kaneland to the promised land (read “state meet”) at the end of the season.
In the 2.2-mile frosh-soph race, Kaneland placed fourth, led by sophomore Ethan Neale’s 14th-place finish.
For the Kaneland boys cross country team, the second Saturday in September marks its annual trek south to Peoria for an early-season race on the state meet course at Detweiler Park. There, in the mammoth First to the Finish Invitational on Sept. 9, the Knights placed fifth with 286 points behind Normal University (144), Sycamore (167), Danville (199) and Riverside-Brookfield (245) in the field of 55 2A schools that included 13 of the state’s top-25 ranked teams.
Leading the charge for the Knights once again was Richtman, who won the individual title with a time of 14:52 over the historic 3-mile layout. Behind him, Occhipinti placed 29th (15:58), Webster placed 70th (16:31), Lodwig 90th (16:40), Heiser 96th (16:43), and Wielgos 100th (16:43) in the field of 492 finishers.
The Knights’ 45-second split between their No. 2 and No. 5 runners had head coach Chad Clarey excited.
“Aidan, Peyton and Jacob are running within an arms’ reach of one another, and we are finally executing the kind of pack-running that it takes to be a top team," he said. "And that pack is now starting to include our No. 6 and No. 7 runners.”
A team’s No. 6 and No. 7 finishers can also contribute to their team’s scoring by placing ahead of any opposing team’s five scoring runners, which raises their finish places and thereby increases their opponents’ team scores.
Looking ahead to Kaneland’s Eddington Invitational at home this weekend, Clarey said: “With seven of the 20 teams ranked in the top 25 in the state on the starting line, it will take great team racing for a team to place in the top five. There will also be 24 individual runners in the race who qualified for the state track championships last spring."
Girls building momentum
For its second competition of the season on Sept. 2, Kaneland split its girls cross country team and sent squads to both the Crystal Lake South Invitational and the Oregon Open. At Crystal Lake, only sophomore Rachel Richtman ran in the varsity race, where she placed third with a time of 19:21 over the 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) Veteran Acres course that is regarded as one of the hilliest in the state.
In the 2.2-mile frosh-soph race, the Knights placed sixth in a field of 17 mostly 3A teams with a score of 151 – just 11 points out of fourth. Belvidere North (fourth) and Wauconda (14th) were the only other 2A schools in the race. Leading the Knights were freshmen Olivia Franklin (second), MacKenzie Egert (16th), Aubrey Broz (29th), sophomore Bethany Duffey (50th) and freshman Sophia James (57th).
At the Oregon Open held at Park West, Kaneland placed third in the 17-team field with 98 points, behind Rock Falls (43) and Rockford Christian (79). There, in the varsity 3-mile race, Knights senior Andrea Wells finished fifth (19:47), and juniors Grace Purcell (20:13), Tessa Brennan (21:06), Erin Ball (21:33) and Lauren Sparber (21:46) placed eighth, 12th, 39th and 43rd in the field of 124 runners. In the JV race, junior Liz Laudont finished 25th, and senior Marissa Dries finished 32nd.
A change to the Kaneland girls cross country schedule this fall was the replacement of the annual Wauconda Invitational with the Waukegan Invitational. After having competed in the meet for the past 40 years, it was moved from Lakewood Forest Preserve to the Matthews Middle School campus, a site that couldn’t accommodate the meet’s traditional 35-team field.
Twenty teams were selected to compete in the Wauconda Invitational this year by lottery, and Kaneland was not one of them. So, on Sept. 9, the Knights competed in an invitational hosted by Waukegan High School – another longtime Wauconda Invitational participant that wasn’t selected in the lottery – at Waukegan SportsPark.
There, the Kaneland girls won both individual and team titles. Super-soph Rachel Richtman won the varsity 3-mile individual title by a 39-second margin over second place in 18:13, while Wells placed fourth (18:59) and Brennan (20:18) and Emma Ball (21:52) finished 11th and 31st individually in the 10-school field.
Unfortunately, varsity stalwarts Purcell and Erin Ball were ill, and Sparber had the ACT college entrance exam that morning, so Kaneland didn’t have five runners finish the race and, therefore, no team score. The meet was won by Huntley with 40 points, followed by Lake Zurich (46) and Stevenson (61).
In the frosh-soph race, Kaneland won the team title with 47 points, ahead of Huntley (53) and Lake Zurich (55), led by freshman Franklin’s individual win in 19:32. She was followed across the finish line by freshmen Egert (third) and Broz (ninth), and sophomores Bethany Duffey (12th) and Kendall Regnier (22nd).
Head coach Doug Ecker said: “I thought Andrea Wells ran one of her best races in finishing fourth, and Tessa was also outstanding.”
Asked about their home meet this weekend – the Eddington Invitational – Ecker said, “Our freshmen and sophomores have been outstanding and really bonded together into a juggernaut team, so we will have several of them compete in the varsity race.”