BY SAM SCINTA
The starting gun is fired signaling the start of the race at the Cross Country Regionals. (Photo by Monica Ybarra)
The name of the game at this point in the season is survive and advance, and the O’Fallon Township High School Boys Cross Country team did just that on Saturday, finishing second in their IHSA Regional in Quincy.
The Panthers advance to compete in the IHSA Sectional hosted at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville on Saturday with a trip to the IHSA State Finals on the line.
O’Fallon finished with 70 points, well behind first place Edwardsville, who scored 19. The Panther advancement, however, wasn’t really in question as OTHS finished 29 points ahead of the third place Alton Redbirds.
“Edwardsville ran a great meet, all sorts of congratulations to them on their run,” Head Coach Jon Burnett said after the meet. “We’re excited to move on and compete for even bigger things.”
Junior Hayden Ybarra paced O’Fallon with a team-best 16:35:10, good for eighth place overall. Fellow junior Garrett Blenkush would also find the top 10, finishing the course with a time of 16:42:90.
Edwardsville’s Franky Ramano would win the day, producing the only time under 16 minutes on the day with a 15:52:10. Teammate Roland Prenzier would follow in second running an even 16:00:00.
Granite City senior Andrew O’Keefe came in third, a full six and a half seconds behind Prenzier.
Edwardsville would continue it’s dominance of the top five, placing freshman Jack Pifer and sophomore Dan Powell in fourth and fifth respectively.
Belleville West senior Brian Gichuru finished sixth and Edwardsville sophomore Max Hartman placed seventh.
Panther senior Zion Ward finished in twelfth place, running a 16:45:30. Classmate Johnathan Whitaker crept into the top 20, finishing in nineteenth with a 17:14:80.
Sophomore Ashton Hess continued a strong second season, placing 21st, two seconds ahead of senior teammate Aaron Reuter’s 17:26:40.
Andrew Joyce ran a 17:28:30 and came in 24th, wrapping up an impressive O’Fallon presence which featured six runners within the top 24.
Deep runs in the IHSA State Tournament have become the norm for a program rapidly becoming a staple on Illinois’ biggest stage, but the Panthers know that they can’t overlook any leg of competition if they want to contend in Peoria.
Up next for O’Fallon will be another match up with rival Edwardsville, a team they have had an up and down relationship with this season, at the IHSA Sectional. Advancement past the course at SIUE means a date with the IHSA State Finals in Peoria’s famous Detweiller Park.
“We’ve got out sights set on SIUE now,” Burnett added.
Girls Cross Country Sets Sights on Sectional
As many of us have watched over the recent weeks during the MLB Playoffs, great teams advance in October when their stars perform like stars. On Saturday in Quincy, O’Fallon’s star ran like one.
Much like Javier Baez of the NL Champion Cubs or Andrew Miller of the AL Champion Indians, Brooke Witzel rose to the top when her team needed her most, and the Blue and Gold are in large part still running this season because of the example set by this burgeoning young star.
The rest OTHS Girls Cross Country Team did its part as well in keeping their season alive over the weekend when the Panthers placed second in the IHSA Regional. O’Fallon will now compete in this weekend’s IHSA Sectional up north on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Panther star junior Brooke Witzel would be crowned Regional Champion with a time of 18:32:20, roughly seven seconds faster than second place Melissa Spencer of Edwardsville, who was followed closely by teammate Jaycie Hudson.
OTHS would get one more top five representative, however, as freshman Kaitlyn Walker finished in fourth place with a time of 18:54:50.
Edwardsville’s Abby Schrobilgen would wrap up the top five with a time of 19:00:20.
O’Fallon freshman Sophie Wichlac continued to add to her impressive rookie campaign with an eighth place finish, running the course with a time of 19:22:40, while classmate Madeline McKittrick rounded out the top ten with a time of 19:25:20. Fellow freshman Emma Jordan would finish thirteenth, running it in 19:46:10.
Junior Kaileigh Perrier would finish in 15th, just under two seconds ahead of teammate Danna Jenkins, who placed right behind her in 16th.
“It was a great team performance, and it sets us up great for a chance to advance past next weekend,” Head Coach Neil James said after the showing.
It was an impressive outing for the Blue and Gold, as all seventh Panther runners finished in the top 16, but it was another big time performance from the Edwardsville Tigers that determined the team standings.
The Tigers featured their top five all within the top 11, while their entire roster placed within the top 14, a feat that would be tough to match by any team in the state.
Up next for the girls is another head to head match up with the rival Orange and Black when they travel to SIUE for the IHSA Sectional. Beyond that looms the IHSA State Finals in Peoria, but the Panthers know they need their best times to move on.
They’re ready for the challenge.
“Bring it on,” James added. “We want to ride this out and keep this going as long as we can.”