Championship or bust.
That's the mantra Beecher runners have had lodged in their subconscious throughout the 2010 cross country season. Had things gone the way the Bobcats expected last fall, they would be taking aim at a title repeat in Saturday's Class 1A state meet, but now they must be content with simply writing one glorious final chapter.
And nothing else is even on the radar.
"We've never talked about second place," senior Griffin Nykaza said. "We'd be respectful about it if we got it, but we wouldn't be happy about it."
"It is all or nothing for us," sophomore Grant Nykaza said. "We've trained all year for this. This may be our last time (together), and we'd hate to be second-best when we have the potential to make a good statement out there."
Beecher was poised to make a similarly powerful statement in 2009, but an inadvertent infraction involving then-junior Jordan Joaquin resulted in the Bobcats being penalized. As a result, their final team standing in Class 1A wound up being sixth.
"We learned from last year that it's not over till it's over," Grant Nykaza said. "We just use it as a lesson learned."
"Anything can happen," Joaquin said. "Just because you're the No. 1 team, that doesn't mean you're going to get handed the trophy. Don't mess around and don't take it for granted."
Beecher was indeed ranked as the top boys cross country squad among Illinois' small schools for much of the 2009 regular season, which made the state-meet mishap all the more painful. Coming up short of a championship also made the Bobcats a target for Internet-based ridicule, according to junior Aaron Borgman, who claimed some random detractors previously wrote off Beecher as "chokers."
"It just makes me want to show them what we're made of," Borgman said. "Right now, we're pretty locked in."
That's been the case the entire season. Against a steady stream of top-flight competition, Beecher has never finished lower than fifth as a team, which it did only at Loyola's prestigious "Triple A" meet.
The Bobcats were third at Seneca's Twilight In The Woods event, but every other outing resulted in a victory. That included at the massive New Prairie (Ind.) Invitational.
In Beecher's own regional two weeks ago, Borgman, the Nykazas and Joaquin all were within a couple seconds of one another atop the individual standings. Grant (15:13) and Griffin (15:20) then ran 1-2 at last Saturday's Decatur St. Teresa Sectional.
"We've all had our own bad races during the year," Grant Nykaza said. "The good thing is, our sixth or seventh guy may pick up the slack. Our seventh guy is almost as fast as most people's fifth."
"Our top seven runners are really fast, (so) I think we're in pretty good shape to get it this year," Griffin said, referring to a state championship.
The Nykazas and Joaquin have already earned gold, doing so last spring as three-fourths of Beecher's state-winning 3,200-meter relay team. Each of the runners believes that track success laid the groundwork for the same kind of outcome at Peoria's Detweiller Park, but none of the Bobcats wants to assume anything is a done deal.
"We're so much better than last year -- a lot has to go wrong for us to lose," Griffin said. "(But) last year, we kind of felt we had a championship in the bag and it still hasn't happened yet."
Added incentive comes from knowing this is probably Beecher's last real shot at the ultimate team prize. Four of the Bobcats' top seven runners will graduate in the spring and, unlike in so many recent seasons, the grade-school pipeline is beginning to show signs of drying up.
"Last year, we always knew we'd have the same team back if we didn't win," Griffin Nykaza said. "Next year, they're going to be struggling to even have enough kids (to score) as a team."
"Ones who want to join next year haven't run a single cross country race, so this is the last year to actually get it done as a team," Borgman said.
Obviously, no one is going to roll over in order to allow Beecher athletes to realize their dream, but the Bobcats don't intend to give it away again, either.
"I think we've improved a lot, teamwork-wise and (with) motivating each other," Joaquin said. "Our coaches told us, 'Don't think it's state, just go out and run your race.' We've got to go in and do everything we can."