ORLAND PARK | A year before Saturday's Class 3A Andrew Regional at Turtlehead Lake, Daya Johnson was likely on her couch.
"From first through eighth grade, all I did was go home, watch TV and eat junk," the Thornwood freshman said.
A couple of hours before the race, she was, um, indisposed.
"She almost missed the bus," Thunderbirds coach Roy White said. "She's a freshman. She was so scared, she thought she was going to throw up."
After the gun went off? She was the difference. Johnson finished the 3-mile course in 21 minutes, 44 seconds, good for 39th place overall as Thornwood, led by 12th-place finisher Deandra Stokes (20:05) and 20th-place Misty Rogers (20:42) placed sixth as a team, advancing to sectional competition for the first time since 2003 — though Thornwood runners have been a part of qualifying co-op teams more recently.
They'll compete next weekend at the Edwardsville Sectional along with team champ Lincoln-Way Central, Joliet West, Lincoln-Way North, Andrew and Joliet Central. On the boys' side, Homewood-Flossmoor, behind Christian Hoover (5th, 15:39), Matt Anyiwo (12th, 16:07) and Kevin Anderson (13, 16:08) finished third to advance with champs Lincoln-Way Central, Joliet Central, Lincoln-Way North, Joliet West and Andrew.
"What happened was my No. 3 girl (Johnson) ran much faster than she's ever run," White said. "She's not our No. 3 runner. She's our No. 5 runner. But she ran a 21:44. She's only broken 23 once before."
Thornwood was 20 points better than seventh-place Thornton. Roughly 15 of those points could be accounted for in Johnson's unexpected drop.
"This is my first sport, my first activity ever," she said. "Colleges, they like to see something on your application, so I thought I'd try a sport. I didn't think it was going to be this hard. But I love it.
"I feel so good about myself, and I feel so supported by my teammates."
Speaking of support, H-F's three-pack of top-13 finishers was a welcome site for Vikings coach Mary Kate Pack.
"It's something we've come to count on all season," she said. "Those three have been together three years. They train together. The goal is always to keep that pack tight and go after people."
Hoover's time was a personal best. The time didn't mean as much as his fifth-place medal.
"That's a big deal for me," he said. "To know I placed top five in the regional as a junior, especially against the competition here, is a great honor."
Local runners advancing as individuals included girls runners Karina Perez (19th) and Maribel Salgado (24th) of Thornton, H-F's Megan Magurany (34th) and Kelda Sandstrom (36th), and T.F. South's Olivia Velasquez (37th); and boys Matthew Kings (7th) and Khalil Lightbourne (14th) of Thornwood, and T.F. South's Tremayne Broy (34th), Anthony Kyte (35th) and Travis Middleton (37th).