O'FALLON — For the O'Fallon High School boys cross country program, it's all about tradition, hard work and talent.
Always one of the top teams in southern Illinois, the Panthers have elevated themselves to one of the best in the state in the past five years.
But while the brilliance of Alex Riba and Patrick Perrier have been huge factors in O'Fallon grabbing back-to-back second- place trophies at the Class 3A state meet the past two years, the Panthers are far more than a pair of superstar harriers.
"Three top-five finishes and two (second-place) trophies in a row, I'm really proud of what these guys have been able to accomplish. But it's not just these guys, it's the runners in the past few years who have led up to this point to where the program is now,'' O'Fallon coach Jon Burnett said. "It's not like we have suddenly jumped to the top. Each group added a little bit and then a little bit more to help us get here.''
With Riba now running cross country for Texas A&M University, O'Fallon may be ready to take that last jump toward a state championship in 2013.
Led by Perrier, one of the nation's top distance runners and junior Dorrian Gordon, the Panthers will again have one of the top duos in the state.
Plus a whole lot more to go with them. O'Fallon entered the 2013 season ranked first in the Dyestat.com Class 3A state poll and are ranked in the top three in every other state cross country poll.
Burnett said he isn't overly impressed.
"Polls are people's opinions of you. I think we were ranked No. 1 based upon who we had coming back this season. But again they are only opinion,'' Burnett said. "The only thing that matters is getting ready and being at our best when we need to be at our best in November. We've been able to do that the last few years.
"The only poll that matters is the one which will be posted in Peoria after the state meet on Saturday, Nov. 9."
Running without Perrier, who was at the University of Wisconsin on a recruiting visit, O'Fallon opened up their 2013 season by winning the Granite City Invitational. Gordon won the individual title by 37 seconds.
Rounding out the Panthers top five runners are seniors Brennan Koester, Steven Chorma and Evan Wesslund.
Seven sophomores and juniors are competing for the final two spots on the Panthers' varsity squad.
The O'Fallon girls squad also could be in the state trophy hunt in early November.
Led by the trio of Sydney Neal, Samantha Lapp and Tami Cardenas, O'Fallon finished a school record ninth in the 2012 state finals.
With all three elite runners returning to go along with a group of outstanding underclassmen, the goals are a little higher.
"Our goal is to bring home a trophy this year," O'Fallon coach Neil James said. "There are probably eight or nine teams with legitimate chances of doing that and wel fee like we're one of them. We feel like we've had a great summer. We've got our top six runners back from last year and our 7 through 11 runners aren't that far behind."
The Panther girls begin their season ranked fifth in the Dyestat.com poll.
Both Lapp and Neal could finish in the top 20 at the state finals. Both seniors, Lapp and Neal realize that this is their last hurrah.
"Their goals are to be all-staters and I see no reason why they shouldn't be able to get there,'' James said. "Next to Glenbard West's top two kids, who could be top five in the state, I'd have to believe that our 1-2 are as good a top two as any n the state.''
Cardenas could be one of the best in Illinois as well. Junior Angela Buch and senior Reagan Lear round out the Panthers' top five runners.
"We're still waiting for Tami (Cardenas) to break out and be the elite runner we know she can be,'' James said. "Angela and Reagan just had great summers and have looked very strong in preseason workouts.
"We're just really excited about the season.''
O'Fallon opened its season on Saturday by winning the Granite City Invitational.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org