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Cross Country team’s season of victory and growth

The 2023 Cross Country season raced by just as quickly as its athletes and brought home victories across its events all season long. Most recently, both the boys’ and girls’ teams went to Peoria for the second time in the season, this time with a sense of hope, accomplishment, and gratitude, to compete in the state championship.

Tracing back to the beginning of the practice season, the girls team had a goal in mind and developed a plan of they would do what they could to reach it. “That summer was different than all the other summers because of the amount of mileage we put in,” shares senior runner Katie Roche.

“Largely our varsity group that ran [at state], at the beginning of summer camp, told me that they were willing to do whatever I asked of them to do to close that gap on those teams that had had trouble getting through to get to the state meet,” explains head coach, Mr. Pena. From there, he said, “it was kind of my responsibility to give them as much work that would allow them to close that gap while also keeping them healthy and fresh.”

On the other end of the program, the boys team had the same aspirations and yet a different strategy. The team had not made it to state the previous year, and were not ranked in the top thirty teams statewide at the beginning of the season. Sophomore runner Myles Jaquez says, “we wanted this to be our comeback year and to prove to the state that we are better than what they think of us.”

Coach John O’Malley, however, had a different take on this. He said, “we just never focused on other teams the whole season. We focused on ourselves. That was the main thing, and we didn’t worry about rankings and where we were supposed to be. I think doing that took [some] of the pressure off. We just focused on improving and racing hard.”

Moving forward, both teams worked hard and stayed determined to be the best they could, whether it be by completing additional runs or harder workouts. “Throughout the season, we had the goal that even if something goes wrong, we just need to keep pushing through and just go over all those obstacles even if other people think that we won’t be able to do it,” explains Jaquez.

Roche also describes the girls team’s preparation, saying, “we just put in a lot of extra work and made sure our runs were going to pay off for the races that we competed [in].”

“That was the meet where, as a coach, I realized we were pretty good and were on par with just about anybody in the state and that we could get an opportunity to do some pretty cool stuff at the end of the year,” says Mr. Pena about the Peoria invitational on September 16, in which the girls placed 8th. The boys placed 18th that same day, too. Following this race, the program continued to succeed in its events throughout the season, leaving traces of improvement each time.

As the season came to an end, the teams also saw success at the SWSC conference race. The girls’ and boys both took home the titles of Conference Champions at the varsity level and entered the postseason with great expectations. 

First came regionals. Here, the girls and boys teams both placed 1st. 

Next was sectionals. Mr. Pena shared that sectionals had been the hardest part of getting to state for the past few years, but the girls’ endeavor came through and allowed the girls to return victorious and qualify for state. The boys followed steadily with 5th place and also qualified for the state meet.

After months of practice, significant dedication, and a series of successful finishes, both cross country teams were headed to the state race as a team. On November 4, the anticipated day began.

“It was a beautiful day,” comments boys team assistant coach Mrs. McAuliffe. “Every time you go down state, it has a different feel, but this one just seemed very joyous…it felt really important and exciting,” she adds. 

Photo courtesy of Rich Smott, Mr. Pena, and Mrs. Wilkins

On top of that, coaches share that the support team for the runners was a large and encouraging group that included family, friends, teammates and even alumni. “A good portion of our team that was not running made the trip down and it was truly a group effort,” explains Mrs. McAuliffe. “[There were] so many people down there with them…it felt big.” 

Even after so much practice, support, and many meets, a race is still nerve wracking to runners of all levels of experience. However, they don’t give up, and it seems that both athletes and coaches agree that the primary motivation in every step is each other.

“We have a culture where it feels like their own little mini family that they’re going out with and that their presence their holds other people accountable and makes other people want to be there and vise versa,” explains Mr. Pena.

Mr. O’Malley expanded on this idea and shared that “a lot of what we focus on is connecting to each other and when you have that there’s a lot more reason to go through a brick wall so to speak.”

“When you commit to each other, you don’t have to worry about the goal,” adds Mrs. McAuliffe.

These intentions are positively noticed onto the athletes of the program as they reflect on their own motivations. Grant Giblin said, “what motivates me is my friends and my family. They want me to do good, and I want to do good because they just have such a good reaction when I do [do] good.”

Roche spoke of the on-the-spot thinking that goes on while racing, explaining how ”any time mentally it got tough [she] was thinking ‘my teammates are doing the exact same thing, we’re all going this for each other right now, so I have to keep pushing so we can have a good outcome and all be happy about it.”

Jaquez echoed this idea, saying that while running at state, he thought, “I have to do this for my team and we have to do this for each other.”

Lindsey Gerhardstein commented upon the community-focused nature of the team. “Having people to run with everyday motivates me to do better.”

Brayden Gaffud, a freshman that competed at the state meet, adds, “it’s almost like a family. Everyone works off each other.”

The boys’ program faced an irregular situation this season: they only had two seniors in the entire program. These seniors were Grant Giblin and Zelalem Ebert. 

Mrs. McAuliffe explained, “Grant Giblin and what he has meant to this program is just immeasurable. I’d like to highlight how important it is to have a runner who embodies all of these things and who really cares about his teammates; and the same thing with Zelalem Ebert, our other senior, who just shares this excitement about our program. It was a really interesting experience to only have two seniors, but…I was just so proud of the two of them and I think [they] embody all that we’re looking for… commitment to something larger than yourself.”

“We would’ve been in real trouble without them. They really took on a lot because they were the only ones there to take it on,” commented Mr. O’Malley.

“I wasn’t trying to leave a big impact,” explains Giblin. “I was just trying to do my best so that the guys who are younger than me can know what to do properly when I’m not there, [and] so other people for years coming have the same chance I had coming into this school.”

At the end of the day, Sandburg returned home from Peoria with victories of all sorts. The girls’ team altogether achieved 10th place at the meet; the sixth best in program history. The boys succeeded in proving the records wrong and won 18th out of 28 teams.

Photo courtesy of Mr. Pena and Mrs. Wilkins

Lindsey Gerhardstein, the girl’s cross country team’s most valuable player this season, finished 20th and later received the SWSC Blue Division Cross Country Athlete of the Year award. The boys runners had four out of seven athletes set personal records on their times. Altogether, the day was largely successful and the season brought with it many valuable takeaways.

The program has a bright future ahead. “[Making it to state] was definitely a huge step forward to reclaiming our culture and what we were… almost everybody is returning, so that’s a really good sign,” said Mr. O’Malley. 

“At the conference meet, we not only won the varsity meet, but our freshman/sophomore [group] also came in first place and we took seven of the top ten spots, so it was kind of cool for not only the varsity to win, but also the freshman/sophomore [group] to follow up to win the conference meet as well because it showed how it’s not just [our top runners], but we had a whole team of girls that were working really hard,” said Mr. Pena. The cross country program at Sandburg, although a program historic in its roots, consists of a very young team, and looks to continue on the positive trajectory for which it is headed.

“The program that Sandburg [has] for cross country is really good, and I feel like I can make an impact,” explains Gaffud. “The coaching is absolutely incredible, that’s how we won the state championship in 2021. Next year we’ll be competing heavily for state.”

“I see us growing a lot,” explains varsity runner Jaquez, “we’re a really young team, so we still have a lot of room to grow.” He goes on to explain how the teams are very strong mentally as well.

The boys persistence to “beat the rankings,” as Jaquez explained, and the girls’ dedication to reach their full potential shows how committed Sandburg’s cross country program is, and speaks to a positive future with many more accomplishments to come.

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