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Morris cross country off and running before season's start

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 9:56 p.m. CST
(Shaw Media file photo)
The Morris cross country team has a large group of runners heading into 2014 season, which starts Wednesday at the Morris Early Bird Invitational.
(Craig Lincoln for Shaw Media)
Members of the Morris boys cross country team hit the road for a recent practice session.
(Craig Lincoln for Shaw Media)
Members of the Morris girls cross country team run during a recent practice. The Redskins host their Early Bird Invitational on Wednesday.

MORRIS – Talk about your ups and downs.

The number of runners in the Morris cross country program has been climbing in the recent years. And, with the increase in numbers has come a decrease in times.

This season, the Morris boys cross country team returns its top five runners from last season as the Redskins hope to take the next step and move beyond sectional action and into Peoria’s Detweiler Park for the state finals.

Coming back for the Redskins, along with their times on last year’s 3.0-mile sectional course at Normal West, are senior Jake Hesslau (16 minutes, 43 seconds), sophomore Zach Chapman (16:45), senior Tristan DeGrush (17:08), senior Vicente Gallegos (17:12) and junior Alan Alvarez (17:14). A couple of other familiar names also return for the Redskins, although they were unable to perform in last year’s sectional. Seniors Jacob Wantland and Austin Patterson should provide both experience and depth to the Morris pack.

“Statistically, we return our top five [Wantland, Hesslau, Patterson, DeGrush and Alvarez],” said Morris coach Joe Blumberg, who enters his ninth season. “We also have our eighth and ninth men [Gallegos and Chapman].

“We limped into the postseason last year, and had five of our season top seven out for the sectional. Luckily, our numbers gave us depth, and we were able to advance to the sectional. We are trying to hold the reins on our guys a bit and keep them healthy.  It’s been tough to do because they are coming off the best summer of training we’ve seen the past decade.”

While Wantland may not be able to put up the times he is used to, at least early in the season, Blumberg is hoping his presence will push the rest of his team. The senior missed most of his sophomore season because of hip surgery and most of his junior year because of surgery on his other hip.

“Jacob Wantland has had two tough years,” Blumberg said. “Right now, our goal is just to get him across the finish line. I know he has loftier goals than that, and rightfully so. He’s a talented distance runner. But we want to see him running in late October and early November, and that may mean holding him back early this season.”

Holding back early in the season may be a team-wide theme, given the way the Redskins saw injuries pile up late last season. Blumberg doesn’t want a repeat.

“It’s nice to be able to say we are returning our top five,” he said. “It will be even nicer to say we made it to championship season with those five still healthy. So much of a cross country season revolves around staying healthy.  It’s the thin line between pushing your body to build endurance and become quicker, but holding back to stay healthy. The good news is, if one guy goes down, we have the numbers to fill spots with quality kids.

“We won’t be at full strength to start the season, as Zach Chapman will run a few fresh-soph races and Austin Patterson recovers from an illness, but we are really trying to focus on the end of October and having our best team finish at a sectional,” Blumberg said.

Morris placed 13th in the Class 2A Peoria Notre Dame sectional in 2012.

Other returning runners include senior Austin Stacy, senior Kris Eliakis, sophomore Noah Rose and sophomore Shane McTague. Newcomers are senior Logan Ault, sophomore Eli Jameson, senior Preston Kyles, freshman Ryan O’Neill, senior Brett Russell, freshman Matt Small and sophomore Craig Watson.

“It’s easy to get caught up in numbers and splits and pack times,” Blumberg said. “But the best part of a cross country season is the daily camaraderie in practice, seeing our runners grow mentally, physically, and emotionally, and witnessing young people develop a love for distance running.”

The program has a total of 35 runners, a near-even split of 18 boys and 17 girls. There are 15 seniors, five juniors, 11 sophomores and four freshmen.

“We struggled to get freshmen this year,” Blumberg said. “Cross country is initially a tough sell, and not having cross country at the junior high levels makes it even more challenging.  If anyone is still interested in joining, we would love to add some more freshmen.”

Girls eye sectional

Returning for the Redskins, along with their 2013 sectional times at Normal West, are senior Bridget Gile (20:59), sophomore Meghan Smith, sophomore Maria Blanco and senior Alexis Halcomb (22:59). Also, seniors Emily Burling and Katherine Gallick, who ran as freshmen, return to the program to add varsity depth. Blumberg looks to newcomers Lily and Sophie Tibbot, both sophomores, to push for slots on the team.

Incoming freshman Mya Shannon is, according to Blumberg, clearly the Redskins’ most talented runner. Senior Brooke Baudino, freshman Jazmynn Geist, junior Amie Koster, junior Avery Norris, junior Kaitlin Palko, junior Lindsey Schmidt, sophomore Olivia Thorson and sophomore Aurora Whitmarsh will add depth and may be able to crack the top seven depending on training progression, health and meet performance.  

“We don’t want to put pressure on an incoming freshman, but Mya Shannon can flat out run,” Blumberg said. “She doesn’t have any cross country race experience, and it may take her a few meets to learn how to race three miles, but she will be thrown into the fire at the Early Bird, racing all-staters from LaSalle-Peru, Gardner-South Wilmington and Ottawa Marquette. But Mya is a competitor and is eager for the challenges ahead. If she stays healthy and continues to improve, she can give us a low number at every meet.

“Having our top three from last year returning should help as well, and take some pressure off of Mya. Both Maria and Meghan had solid freshman seasons, and Bridget is a fantastic leader and has been consistent for us for three years.”

As with on the boys side, Blumberg believes the numbers will work toward the Redskins’ advantage most of the season.

“I think we will have a healthy competition to round out the top seven,” he said. “With Alexis, Katherine, Emily, and Lily and Sophie, once they gain valuable race experience.  But I hesitate to only mention them, because one of the great things about cross country is the tremendous improvements runners can make through the course of a season. We will see in October who the most improved and pleasant surprises are.”

One more than pleasant surprise would be a trip to the Valhalla of Illinois cross country runners, Detweiler Park.

“Our goal is to again advance to the sectional as a team and potentially get an individual to state,” Blumberg said. “Our best sectional finish in school history is 16th, and I think we have the talent to better that mark. In the conference, Yorkville and Kaneland are just outstanding. Yorkville is the three-time defending [Class] 2A state champions and again ranked No. 1 in the state and Kaneland is ranked in the top 10.”

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