BEECHER | Forgive Grant Nykaza if he's a little more self-centered this year. The same goes for Mike Polzin and Aaron Borgman.
All three were part of Beecher's ascent to a 2010 Class 1A state championship in boys cross country, and they were the only members of that squad's top seven runners to return for the 2011 season. As expected, Nykaza, Polzin and Borgman have picked up where they left off.
Nykaza, in fact, is a good bet to emerge as an individual champion at today's state meet in Peoria, while Polzin and Borgman have established top-25 finishes as their main goals. The surprising thing is that the three won't be making the journey to Detweiller Park by themselves.
The entire Bobcats team qualified for an eighth consecutive state meet. Beecher did so by placing fourth at last Saturday's Lisle Sectional, which Nykaza won in 16 minutes, 5 seconds.
"We were fortunate to be in a very easy sectional," Bobcats assistant coach Henry Nykaza said. "We probably would have gotten eighth or ninth down in Decatur, but we made it (to state). That was our goal."
"We didn't really expect it too much at the beginning of the year," Polzin said of a return trip to Peoria, "but as the season progressed, we all started to really improve our times. When we won regionals, we thought for sure we would make it to state."
Even with the very real prospect of a personal championship looming, Grant Nykaza wishes Beecher was in a better position to make another serious charge at a team crown. He said winning "as a team was just the greatest feeling I've ever had."
The veteran Bobcats are all realistic, though, about their squad's chances for a repeat.
"Right now, I think we're ranked 18th (in 1A)," Borgman said. "We might improve on that. Our regular fourth guy got really far back in the (sectional) race on Saturday, so we're looking to break into the top 10.
"But our team won't place very good (compared to last year), so it's more individual now."
Nykaza demonstrated at Lisle, however, that there still exists a team concept. Although his best time this season is 14:30, Nykaza willingly adjusted his pace to give Borgman — who wound up third — and the other Bobcats a better opportunity.
"His strategy was to try and kind of pull (the leaders) out after a mile, and have our guys sit back and see how much (the front-runners) would tire," Henry Nykaza said. "It helps when you have a lead runner who can more or less control the tempo of the whole race.
"It was a good strategy as far as from Aaron's perspective. It worked out very well."
Polzin didn't enjoy as good a day last weekend, which has him primed for today's event. Like Borgman, he admitted "it's more personal goals than trying to win it as a team."
"I think we can place a lot better than we're projected to get if we all run smart races," Polzin said, "but I want to end my cross country career in high school with a bang."
Polzin is completing his third year in Beecher's program, as is Grant Nykaza, while Borgman is a four-year man. With Nykaza being surrounded by less-accomplished runners next fall, does this state meet truly represent the Bobcats' last hurrah in cross country?
Nykaza felt this season's newcomers performed well in spite of their lack of summertime miles.
"That kind of hurt them a little bit," he said." But what they've done throughout the season, just with us and with no base miles, that's pretty good for them. They're starting to drop their times a lot at the end of the season.
"If they keep working, maybe in a few years, even when I'm gone, they'll have a solid pack. I don't know if they'll have much of a front-runner, and I don't think they can come up to that team we had last year, but maybe they can compete for a top-five (finish) down the road."
As for his own quest for gold, Nykaza anticipates Monticello's Steve Schroeder being his biggest potential roadblock.
"You know I can never expect a state championship to be easy," Nykaza said with a smile. "I'm going to have to work at it. He's been running really solid times lately, and I know he's going to give me a run.
"I'm just going to run my race. With the new mileage I've done this year, I'm a lot more confident in my racing."