Nick Fiene was there last year, awash in the vortex of the state high school cross country championship, a sophomore waiting for the crowd at Peoria’s Detweiller Park to quiet down, waiting for the gun.
“The one thing you’ve got to think the whole time is just relax,” Fiene said. “Take deep breaths. It’s the same as any other race. Don’t let the crowd and the atmosphere get in your head in a bad way. In a good way, definitely.
“There’s the deep breath before the gun, and that seems like the longest time ever, before that gun sounds. You’re just waiting and waiting, and your head’s just going crazy. Your heart’s beating, and then when the gun goes, everything’s just go, go, go. You’re just thinking ‘Go faster, go faster, go faster!’ at Detweiller pretty much the first mile. Then you go, ‘All right, now let’s go.’ ”
That’s a third of the way into the race that he and his teammates, brothers Tony and Nick Wondaal, Colin DeYoung, Austin Gibson, Kevin Vroegh and Tom McGuire, have been working all year for: Illiana Christian’s best chance to win a state championship since the 2004 girls softball team took fourth place in Class A in Pekin.
If the Vikings succeed in Class 2A, that group of seven will win Illiana’s first state championship.
No boys team has captured a trophy, much less a title. The girls of the 1996 softball squad came closest, runner-up to powerful Casey- Westfield in the title game.
“If we win state it’ll be more just ... I don’t know ... kind of ... it would be awesome,” Nick Wondaal said. “As a team, that’s what our main goal is. Win as a team. Nothing else matters but that really. That’s the goal.”
Coach Jim Piaskowy, who donned a wig with blond locks after his squad edged Yorkville for the sectional title on a tiebreaker, has been building to this.
“It will make a statement, that’s for sure,” Piaskowy said of a potential title. “We’ve had tradition. We’ve had good teams, but this year we’ve got five – seven good runners, all at the same time.
“What’s interesting is a couple of these guys (including Kevin Vroegh) played golf. This is the second and third year a lot of these guys are running. Tony’s the only one who’s been out for four years.
We have two sophomores, so this is their second year running. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t recruit ’em. All of a sudden, they show up. ‘You guys want to run, huh?’ It’s just fantastic.”
The Vikings finished sixth last year, and all the key runners are back. Their highest previous placing is fifth, on two occasions.
Fiene, who has emerged as the lead runner as a junior, ran his first mile at Detweiller last year in 4:50, and finished the three-mile run in 15:19. He ran his first mile last week in 4:45, five seconds faster than he’d planned, finishing 3.06 miles in 15:40. But he expects a faster start on Saturday.
“At the end of the year, I should be running faster,” Fiene said.
But first will come the wait for the starting gun.
“There’s really not words I can say to explain the whole feeling and the whole atmosphere of it,” he added. “It’s crazy.”
Yorkville will be the most formidable competition, as was the case at the sectional, with downstate Mahomet-Seymour, with five quick runners, also in the mix. But while Yorkville has identical twins Jake and Luke Hoffert, each of whom beat Fiene to the finish line at Kress Creek Farm Park, Illiana’s depth could make the difference at Detweiller. The 3.5-second difference between Nick Wondaal, Illiana’s fifth-place runner, and Trevor Wills, Yorkville’s fifth man, was only four places in the sectional. It could be 14 in the state final, and that would mean a 10-point margin in Illiana’s favor in that place alone.
Illiana’s top five finished in fifth, ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th and 14th. Yorkville’s were second, third, eighth, 16th and 18th. And McGuire, Illiana’s sixth man, was 22 places and 29 seconds ahead of Yorkville’s sixth man, Jake Firrantello. It’s difficult to judge where Mahomet-Seymour would rank going in, because Illiana and Yorkville ran over a 3.06-mile circuit rather than the standard 3-mile loop, but Illiana and Yorkville have been ranked all season.
All things being equal, whichever team gets its fifth man over the finish line first should win. It’s worked out that way in nine of the last 12 boys title races in all classes, and three of the last four times in Class 2A.
Mount Carmel is also in the 2A field, qualifying by the narrowest of margins. The Cavavan tied with the host Chicago Maroons for the final team qualifying place in the regional in Chicago’s Washington Park, advancing because the IHSA takes all teams tying. Had there been a tiebreaker, the Caravan would have stayed home. Now, senior Dan O’Keefe, third in the sectional, gets to lead his fellow runners to the starting line in the 2A championship race.
Illiana senior Alexa Beezhold was the only area girl to advance.
She’ll be in her fourth and final trip to the state championship, but for the first time as an individual. Her 15th place finish last year earned her all-state honors, awarded to those in the top 25.
“My times haven’t been quite low enough,” Beezhold said. “I’ll just go for the top 25. I’ll try to focus at the start. I get nervous if I’m not nervous.”
Homewood-Flossmoor’s Nate Anyiwo returns to Peoria and is joined by teammate Kevin Anderson. Thornwood had one representative, Matt King, advance from the downstate sectional at Southern Illinois’ Edwardsville campus.
In Class 1A, Beecher qualified as a team by taking second in the sectional at Lisle. Led by sophomore Nathan Swanson, the Bobcats are young in the post-Grant Nykaza era, with four juniors and two sophomores.