Cross Country teams have a date with State

Joey Black pours it on to cross the finish line. (O'Fallon Weekly Photo by Jeff Egbert)

Joey Black pours it on to cross the finish line. (O’Fallon Weekly Photo by Jeff Egbert)

Running in November has become quite the norm for the O’Fallon Township High School Cross Country program.

The OTHS Boys Cross Country Team has made quite a habit out of shining on the IHSA stage over the past decade and a half, and now the Panthers are heading towards their 14th consecutive trip to the IHSA State Finals at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

O’Fallon would ride a pair of top ten finishes from seniors Chris Conrad and Joey Black en route to a second place finish behind Sectional champion Minooka, who boasted the meet winner when Soren Knudsen crossed the finish line a full 19 seconds ahead of second place Evan Mitchell of [New Lenox] Lincoln Way-West. Conrad finished in fifth while Black finished seventh.

The Panthers managed 96 points, safely placing the Blue and Gold in advancement position. Minooka would score an impressive 89, safely in first place with a healthy 22 second split from their second place runner to their fifth place runner. O’Fallon would feature a 39 second split.

Edwardsville would score 103, good for third place ahead of state qualifying Lincoln Way-East (111 points) and Yorkville (129 points).

Panther sophomore Will Van Alstine would cross the line in 26th, running a 16:54, one place and one second ahead of junior teammate Hayden Ybarra. Fellow junior Matthew Gilster would wrap up the Panther five, finishing 31st with a time of 16:56.

Up next for the OTHS boys harriers will be a 14th consecutive chance to bring home the school’s first ever team IHSA State Championship this Saturday in Peoria.

The Sectional success was not limited to the Boys side, however, as the Panther Girls also punched their ticket to Detweiller Park, placing fourth in the IHSA Girls Edwardsville Sectional.

The Lady Panthers were again led by rising junior star Brooke Witzel, who finished a team best 12th place with a time of 19:34.

Witzel would be followed by a pair of freshman teammates, as Kaitlyn Walker finished 21st with a time of 20:11 and Sophie Wichlac ran a 20:27, good for 25th.

Sophomore Katie Mank finished 31st, running a 20:34, ten seconds ahead of freshman Madeline McKittrick, who came in 35th.

The Panthers managed a team score of 124, placing them a comfortable 30 points ahead of fifth place Lincoln Way-East.

Minooka finished off the clean sweep of the Boys and Girls heats, winning the Sectional with a team score of 24, an impressive 12 points ahead of second place Yorkville. Edwardsville ran off a score of 100, good for third place.

Minooka senior Mackenzie Callahan ran a 17:55, leading the charge of four straight Indians runners to cross the finish line. Teammates Ashley Tutt, Emily Shelton, and Vivian Van Eck would combine to make up the top four.

Yorkville would then feature the next four runners, as Normal Community West’s Mara Smith would be the only runner in the top ten to come from a school other than Minooka or Yorkville when she placed ninth.

Up next for both teams is a date with the best teams from across Illinois when the Panthers collectively battle to bring home what would be an historic championship for O’Fallon Athletics. Neither team has ever produced a finish better than second in Peoria.

But the only history these teams are focused on is in the classroom, and these runners know that their biggest test of the year will take place in the future, not the past, and as true in any sport, the postseason offers a wild and unpredictable atmosphere full of memorable performances and unlikely heroes.

These Panthers are ready for the challenge.