Like most brothers, Tony and Nick Wondaal grew up playing against each other in most every sport that could fit into a backyard or playground.
“We started out with basketball, high-level basketball, then we didn’t grow anymore,” Nick Wondaal remembered.
Tony recalled it vividly.
“Being a center all the way through grade school, and then having to play guard, you know?” he said, recalling the sporting possibilities of his freshman year at Illiana Christian in a less-than-eager light.
But there was an option: Cross country.
“We started to run,” Nick Wondaal said.
Tony first, as a freshman on Jim Piaskowy’s always well-regarded Vikings cross country team.
Then Nick, whose freshman year last year coincided with Tony’s junior campaign.
Now they are sophomore and senior, respectively, and two of the top three in Piaskowy’s loaded lineup. Junior Nick Fiene has emerged as the top runner this autumn, faster and more seasoned than he was as a sophomore, when he was chasing Tony Wondaal.
“They’re like all brothers, not just the two real brothers, but everybody else,” Piaskowy said. “It’s a dream team.”
So it appears. It’s those blond-dyed locks, an Illiana tradition for almost 15 years now. All of them go for it, from Fiene to freshman Jacob Thompson, the No. 8 runner on the team, who ran in Saturday’s regional to give him a taste of the postseason.
“It started in about 2000, so you can see us from across the way,”
Tony Wondaal said. “If you don’t run well with this hair, you feel a little embarrassed. It like pressures you into running fast.
“We were all friends, all basketball players to start. Once we got to high school, I was the only one who did cross country my freshman year. I kind of took a risk. We just pulled some guys from other sports. We’re all pushing each other. It’s a great group.”
Fiene has gracefully assumed the lead role for this no-embarrassment team on most days.
“It’s a jump from my sophomore to junior year, just growing in my body, getting a lot stronger,” Fiene said. “Definitely getting through the mental toughness aspect of it I think as helped me out great this year. That’s been a big part of my success so far this year.”
For Fiene, the key is in his head as the race evolves. In Saturday’s 2A regional at Midlothian Meadows, for instance, it was when to overhaul the early front-runner, Marian Catholic’s Camren Howard.
“It’s that split-second decision,” Fiene said. “Either you’re going to stick with the guys and go with them, or you’re going to drop off.
You’ve just got to be able to push through that decision and just say, ‘I’m going to go,’ and just keep going and finish the race.”
“It just really hurts and I’m gonna stop,” Fiene said.
Which is no alternative.
“Exactly. I try to go in a surge at about a mile to go and hopefully, I can get the other guys to crash mentally, try to build the gap and then continue on,” Fiene said.
It worked on Saturday. When Howard led, Fiene was third, the rest of Illiana’s runners right behind him. When Fiene took off, they followed. Tony and Nick Wondaal finished second and third, some 13 and 27 seconds behind him. Howard was fourth, about 32 seconds back. Then came Illiana’s Kevin Vroegh and Colin DeYoung in fifth and sixth for an easy team victory.
The same plan will be more difficult at West Chicago’s Kress Creek Park, site of Illiana’s 2A sectional, on Saturday. Glenbard South’s John Wold, who swept regional, sectional and state 2A titles last year, is expected to run away from the pack again. The race is really for second place. Tony Wondaal was third in last year’s sectional, Fiene ninth as a sophomore.
Then there’s Yorkville, the bigger threat. Identical twins Luke and Jake Hoffert were fourth and fifth in last year’s sectional as sophomores. Like Fiene, they’ve grown up fast, running second and third to Wold in last week’s regional in faster times than they posted in last year’s sectional.
“It just depends on where their 4-5 runners are, compared to our 4-5,” Piaskowy said. “We could lose sectionals and win the state, just because of the mix of the sectional and the different caliber of runners at the state meet, depending on where their fourth and fifth runners are. If they’re behind our fourth and fifth runners by 10 seconds, that doesn’t mean a whole lot at sectionals, but at state it could mean 30 runners.”
The top five teams advance to the 2A championship in Peoria, but the higher runners finish, the better their placement in the starting grid.