Freshman year of high school can be an intimidating time.
The fear factor escalates whenever anyone joins an athletic program boasting a storied reputation. Even Jim Piaskowy, who has taken his last four Illiana Christian boys cross country teams to the Class 2A state meet, acknowledges the need to bring first-year kids along somewhat gingerly.
"As freshmen, you don't want to push them too hard," Piaskowy said. "You've got four years with them, so you don't want to burn them out."
But Tony Wondaal was different when he arrived at the Lansing school in the fall of 2010.
"He wanted more and more," Piaskowy said. "He pushes himself."
Perhaps the Vikings' running tradition didn't frighten Wondaal because the St. John resident was familiar with it before he ever enrolled at the school. Wondaal's father, Marty, was a contributor to Illiana's rich cross country and track history during the mid-1980s, having been a top-five state finisher in the former sport as a junior and the Class A champ in the mile one year later.
"I've got big shoes to fill," Tony said, "but I think I'll get there. I was right about even with him as a freshman."
In his initial prep cross country season, Tony placed 88th at the Class 2A meet, the highest finish for any Illiana freshman during Piaskowy's coaching tenure. His time of 16 minutes, 2 seconds was Wondaal's season-best effort.
"I really took a lot (of seconds) off near the end of the year," Wondaal said. "It was a great atmosphere (at state) and Coach Pi was really reassuring. He told me, 'Just run your race. I know you'll do good.'"
Then last spring, Wondaal qualified for the state track meet in the mile and also as a member of the 3,200-meter relay team. The 4:34 he clocked during the season established a Vikings freshman record in the individual event.
"Track season pushed him up to another level," said Piaskowy, who believes Wondaal can reduce his three-mile time to the low 15s by the end of this season. "That should place him in the top 25. I'm hoping he can be all-state this year."
Wondaal ran a 15:50 at the Illiana Invitational on Sept. 17 while placing second to teammate Matt Hall. He bested Hall two weeks earlier at T.F. South's Rich Dust Invitational, but said he hasn't "had that great race yet."
Still, Wondaal has done some heady stuff for someone who didn't immediately take to cross country, even with a motivating father.
"He really had to push me to get out there when I was a younger kid," Wondaal said. "He convinced me to try out, but I was way at the back of the pack at first. He told me, 'Aim high, don't limit yourself,' and once you get a little taste of success, it'll get you hooked."