PEORIA | To a man, Illiana Christian cross country runners prefer to consider the water bottle half-full.
For that reason, they were all smiles when accepting the IHSA trophy for finishing second in the boys Class 2A championship race on Saturday at Detweiller Park.
But 100 yards away, out of sight of the cameras and the doting parents, some tears flowed. Tony Wondaal, for instance, had to lean on a teammate before his eyes began to dry. The Vikings had invested a summer – some of them four summers – of training for this moment, and Yorkville, whom they had edged in last week's sectional, beat them to the state championship. The Foxes, boosted by the second- and third-place finish of twins Jake and Luke Hoffert in the team-only standings, scored 119 points to Illiana's 134.
It's Illiana's first team trophy in any boys sport, and its first in cross country for boys or girls.
"We knew were in the money, and we knew it was going to be close," Illiana coach Jim Piaskowy said. "It could have been just as easy we didn't go on the podium today. But the kids came through the last 400 meters. They took 50 places."
Illiana, the top-ranked team in the state Class 2A poll all season, was first at the halfway point of the three-mile race, and had a six-point edge on Chicago Jones at the last intermediate placing. But then the placings began to jumble. Other runners ran by them on the gentle downhill slope of the course alongside Route 29, and more did so when the route went back into the park.
But the finish at Detweiller is uphill, and a steeper grade than the downhill portion. There, the Vikings made their move.
First was Nick Fiene. The junior was 40th the first time by the finish line, ran the first mile in 4:52, was 12th the second time by, then made a big push down the stretch to finish seventh overall and sixth in the team scoring, crossing the finish line in 15:04.
"Coming up to that last corner, I was about 14th," Fiene said. "I was dying. I just saw a pack and had to go for it. I think that last hill was, 'How much heart do you have? How much can you push through the pain?' To pick off however many guys you can get is the most important thing."
For Fiene, it was similar to an invitational race here earlier in the fall, when he also finished strong. But a state trophy wasn't on the line then. Saturday it was, and while it wasn't first, the Vikings came through. The effort made the bus ride back to Lansing more palatable than failing to win the team title otherwise would have.
"It's more important that all of our guys did the best they could," Fiene said. "Hopefully they left everything out on the course. I knew these guys would gut it out. We don't really run for individual glory on this team. We run to glorify God, and work as a team to get that end result of a championship trophy."
Not far behind Fiene, Colin DeYoung, a sophomore who looked as if he would blow away in the blustery conditions but whom Fiene calls "an animal," also hunkered down. He raced through runners after the final turn and took 12th in the team placing, two spots ahead of Yorkville's third runner, Nolan Tweedy.
"I just kept looking forward," DeYoung said. "I knew whatever happened, my teammates would hold their weight. There was pressure, but we see pressure more as an opportunity."
Tony and Nick Wondaal and Tom McGuire were the other Vikings in the scoring, taking 22nd, 43rd and 51st in the team scoring. In the end, Illiana couldn't beat the Hoffert twins. The Vikings had everyone else covered.
"Our No. 5 runner, Tommy McGuire, stepped up big time today," Piaskowy said. "We had a couple performances we weren't happy with, but next week it might have been different."
Piaskowy noted that Illiana, with 540 students, about 240 less than the maximum for 1A, plays up in class. That's because it's a private school, and the IHSA attendance multiplier comes into play.
"To be up there against those other schools, to just be here, is just great," Piaskowy said. "Those other schools are 1,500."
Yorkville also won the girls Class 2A championship.