The O’Fallon Panthers enter the 2015 cross country season once again with huge numbers in their program, a pair of heralded freshman and the look of a team which will once again be the one to beat for the Southwestern Conference title.
But the Panthers are also a team which must replace six of their top runners — five of which are running at NCAA Division I or Division II programs.
But that’s fine with veteran coach Jon Burnett, who has led O’Fallon to five straight top 10 finishes at the Class 3A state cross country meet.
“That’s part of it,’’ Burnett said. “Kids come in as freshman and you watch them grow and mature over the next four years into young adults who hopefully go onto college and become productive citizens in society. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to coach a lot of great kids over the years.
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“Kids who compete in cross country are usually ones who are very disciplined, highly-motivated and extremely hard working. You have to be those things to be successful in this sport and life in general.’’
The Panthers, who placed 10th at the Class 3A state meet a year ago, will be led by junior Joey Black and senior D’Angelo Baker, both of whom will be counted on to fill the void of all-stater Dorrian Gordon, who is at St. Louis University.
Other seniors to watch include Alexander Harrison and Josh Kolb. Junior Chris Conrad also is in the mix for a spot in the Panthers’ top 10 runners.
The Panthers also have sophomores Garrett Blenkush, Matthew Gilster and Hayden Ybarra, along with two runners to watch in the next four years in Kyle Dismukes and Will VanAlstine. Ashton Hess is another top freshman.
O’Fallon girls will look to reload
The top girls cross country program south of suburban Chicago, O’Fallon lost several runners from a team which placed 17th at the 2014 Class 3A state finals, including four-year starter Tami Cardenas, who is now competing at the Air Force Academy.
But for coach Neil James, it doesn’t seem to matter.
The Panthers head into the Granite City Invitational on Saturday with perhaps the top sophomore in the metro-east in Brooke Witzel, along with a deep and talented senior class.
Sam Tidwell and Caitlyn Clinton will lead the senior class, which also includes Hannah Nabb, Anna Langevin and Sarah Duffy, all of whom will help comprise the Panthers’ top 10 to start the season.
James likes what he’s seen from his team heading into its first big test of the season.
“We look at each year as a new adventure. I am always excited to see who will step forward and become the leaders of the team,’’ James said, “We have been very fortunate to have some good runners come through our program that have set the bar for all that follow.
“This team seems to have a good blend of senior leadership as well as some youth. It is hard to tell until we have couple of meets to see how we compare to other schools. I know that a few schools in the area have really improved, so we will have our work cut out for us. We have to replace a strong group of seniors.’’
Witzel enters her sophomore season as one of the best runners in Southern Illinois, after placing 65th at state a year ago. Another sophomore, Maddie Collins, also improved last year and was among the Panthers’ top seven at the end of the season.
Sophomore Kaileigh Perrier, younger sister of former boys state champion and Stanford University runner Patrick Perrier, is also listed among O’Fallon’s top 10, along with junior Danna Jenkins and freshman Katie Mank.
Behind the top 10 runners are perhaps 10 or 12 others waiting for their shot to crack the lineup.
The key according to James is the girls and the tradition of excellence in the program.
”It is all about the girls in our program. Our seniors know the importance of teaching the younger runners the expectations of being in our program. We have been very lucky to have some very talented runners who at the same time have an amazing work ethic,’’ James said. “The key to maintaining the success is getting the athletes to buy into what we are doing and having a good blend of senior leaders and young enthusiastic runners.’’
Granite City Invite set for Saturday
Most of the top program in Central and Southern Illinois will be on hand when the Granite City Invitational takes place Saturday at Wilson Park in Granite City.
The varsity girls race kicks off the five-race event at 8:30 a.m., followed by the varsity boys at 9 a.m. Junior varsity races follow at 9:30 and 10 a.m. with the open division race set for 10:30 a.m.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at email@example.com or 618-239-2661.