CALUMET CITY | When Chris Szablewski lined up at the start of last Saturday's Class 2A Illiana Christian Regional, there were few reasons for spectators to focus attention on him.
Being pitted against the deep and talented host school certainly didn't do Szablewski any favors in the getting-noticed department. Nor did the fact that the T.F. North sophomore had never faced so many competitors during the regular season.
That latter circumstance was by design. In deference to the youthful group of runners under his tutelage, coach Tim Bankston opted to have the Meteors bypass invitationals and concentrate their efforts on smaller weekday meets.
"We're trying to build a program here, not destroy it," Bankston said. "We go to some of those bigger events, where there's 15 (or) 20 teams, and our kids wouldn't do well in them.
"A lot of this (sport) is confidence, and the kids have to feel they can compete. We kind of wanted to focus on the meets we had a chance of winning, so the kids wouldn't get discouraged."
One guy who seemed ready for more of a prime-time stage was Szablewski, who had held his own while running with former teammate Jamel Hill the year before.
"He'd run in phases -- he'd sprint and then jog some -- and I just tried to keep (up with) his pace," Szablewski said of Hill, who's now at Robert Morris University in Chicago. "I'd be close to him, but he'd beat me all the time."
Szablewski thought a similar fate awaited him at the Illiana Sectional, at least at the outset.
"They were going way faster than me at first," he said of the leading runners, "but I guess the last half of the race I started picking up and I caught some people."
He caught quite a few of them, in fact. Only nine participants clocked a better time than Szablewski's personal-best 18 minutes, 4 seconds. That effort earned him one of the individual berths at today's Nazareth Academy Sectional, which will be held at Niles West High School in Skokie.
"I was actually very surprised because I wasn't expecting to place," Szablewski said. "My main goal was to lower my time. If I came in one of the top places, that was a bonus."
Szablewski essentially followed that same guideline through his shortened season. Bankston amped up the Meteors' practice sessions in order to compensate for the reduced number of meets, something Szablewski said was beneficial.
There was a part of him that missed racing in invitationals, however.
"You have the opportunity to run with better people than you do in regular meets," Szablewski said. "You just try to come out and be on top of the radar, show people that a (supposedly) lower-class school can beat higher-class schools. Some of the people think we're not going to do good when we go against good schools, but I just try to keep a positive focus on things."
Bankston shares that optimism in regard to Szablewski.
"Chris is one of those kids who's going to come in and do his work every day," Bankston said. "I wish I had about 12 guys like him on the basketball team. I love this kid to death and I want nothing but the best for him.
"What we're working on with him now is closing the races (strong). Once he gets that down, I think he's going to be a sensational runner."