Contrary to popular belief, the Illiana Christian girls cross country team is not an overnight success.
Neither is their appearance in today’s Class 1A championship race in Peoria a few weeks in the making. It’s not even a year in the making.
The seeds for this year’s advancement were sown in the autumn of 2007, when the Vikings first made the trip to Detweiller Park. A 20th-place finish in Class A – last among the teams on hand – was less than hoped for, but getting to the final race of the season was achievement in itself for a team that had never done so.
The same was true in 2008. Another 20th, and last. In 2009, a third straight 20th-place finish was only next-to-last. Still, a tradition was being cultivated. Much like on the boys side – that Vikings squad is making its sixth straight appearance in the finals and 15th in school history – Illiana Christian was now a team expected to make it to the end of the season.
In 2010, there was a breakthrough. The “four freshmen” appeared on the scene, with Emma Pawlowski and Alexa Beezhold leading the way, aided by Monica Smits and Alex Clausing. The Vikings made it to Detweiller again, and this time, they finished 18th.
The baby steps got bigger last fall. Underrated by observers, Illiana advanced again. Beezhold was 29th in the points and 37th overall, knocking 63 seconds off her time from the year before. Pawlowski took 57th in the points and 75th overall, and the Vikings climbed to 16th in the standings.
“I didn’t want to let myself think we couldn’t make it,” Beezhold said. “I always thought we’d make it to state. But we weren’t ranked very high. But we wanted it so bad.”
Now they could smell what it was like to be near the top.
This year, they can taste it. The Vikings will once again run with perennial state powers, including Yorkville and Peoria Notre Dame, but a funny thing happened at Reed-Keppler Park last Saturday. Beezhold and Kristen Brink finished ahead of three Yorkville runners.
That’s not to say Yorkville, which ran away with the sectional title while Illiana finished fourth, isn’t favored to repeat. But when the gun is fired at 11 a.m. today, the Vikings and the Foxes will be just two boxes apart on the starting grid.
“The times we were running earlier this season were already faster than the times we ran at state (last year), so we’re a way better team this year,” Beezhold said.
Beezhold’s career-best time of 18:12 at hilly Reed-Keppler was nine seconds better than her time at the flatter Detweiller course last year. Most of the Vikings, in fact, ran career-best times at the sectional.
“As a team, we want to get in the top 10,” Beezhold said.
It’s possible. Vikings coach Deb Top wanted Beezhold to run with the Yorkville crew, which finished 1-3-4-6 at Reed-Keppler, and that vaulted Beezhold to sixth. Sisters Kristen and Lauren Brink finished 15th and 22nd. Pawlowski, coming off an injury, took 25th.
“We’re ranked about 13th (in 2A right now), so we’d like to hold that or get better at state,” Top said.
Top’s plan for the team running more miles – as many as 300 – in the summer has paid off so far. So might having the championship race at the traditional site. Detweiller is a fast course.
“One of our fastest races was at Loyola at the lakefront, which has this huge hill,” Top said. “We practice running hills, and I try to get them in the mentality that they love hills. Some of the girls, until (sectional), had their best times on that course. Now we go to Detweiller, where the competition is hot, and we’ll go out fast and run great times there.”
The boys team might have an even better shot at a top-10 finish, and an outside shot at a top-three finish, which would mean a trophy.
While Paul Jellema took the individual Class A title in 2001, the Vikings as a group have finished fifth twice, in 2003 and 2007.
“I’m real happy with our team,” said Tony Wondaal, who took third in the sectional, and saw three teammates, sophomore Nick Fiene and freshmen Colin DeYoung and Nick Wondaal, his younger brother, come in right behind him in the top 12. “Some guys didn’t have their best day, but that’s still a great team effort. I’m really excited for state.”
The Vikings are young. Jordan Dekker was the only senior running in the sectional, and he was last among Illiana’s seven. That bodes well for the future, but first, there’s a title to run for.
“I want them to have fun at Detweiller,” Tony Wondaal said of the newcomers to the state carnival. “Don’t get too caught up in it, but use the adrenalin from state.”
Coach Jim Piaskowy sees a big day ahead.
“We have a shot at top five, and if we run well, who knows, a trophy could be sitting in our trophy case next week,” Piaskowy said.
In Class 1A, it was expected that Beecher’s Grant Nykaza would advance to the championship race easily, but the girls team was a question mark. No longer. It squeezed in, taking the last of five team spots at the sectional in Lisle, led by senior Jade Dooley, who finished 17th on a 3.1-mile course in 21:24. Beecher’s 165 points were just eight fewer than Timothy Christian.