Both O’Fallon Township High School cross country teams made the long haul to Quincy to compete in the Illinois High School Association regional races a productive venture this past weekend.
The Panther squads finished second in both competitions, qualifying for the IHSA sectional this Saturday on the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus. Junior Brooke Witzel made the trip even more memorable, winning the girls’ race to snag the individual championship.
Witzel’s stellar effort paced the Panthers, who finished second to conference rival Edwardsville in the final team standings. The Tigers edged the O’Fallon girls by nine points 27-36 in what was basically a two-team battle. Besides Witzel’s winning effort, Coach Neil James crew of young runners aided in challenging Edwardsville for the regional crown.
“We ran much better at the regional than we did at the conference meet,” James said. “The younger runners (all freshmen) really stepped up — especially Kaitlyn Walker, Sophie Wichlac, Madeline McKittrick and Emma Jordan. They finished as our No. 2 through No. 5 runners with each of them running her best time of the season.”
Witzel also produced her best individual effort of 2016, negotiating the three-mile course in 18:32, 13 seconds faster than Edwardsville’s Melissa Spencer.
“Brooke took the lead from the beginning and continued to open the gap on the rest of the field throughout the race,” James said. “Brooke is really locked in right now and is running great. She does an outstanding job of raising her level of intensity for the big meets and our post-season.”
“We will have our work cut out for us in the sectional,” James added. “In the race, there will be six teams battling for five qualifying spots. I am excited to see what will happen at SIUE as our girls seem to be coming together and running well at the right time.”
Coach Jon Burnett’s boys squad equaled their female counterparts in the regional run, ending the day in second place behind a dominating effort by the Edwardsville Tigers. Burnett placed the burden on his younger runners on the Quincy course, and they came through with solid efforts, ensuring their slot in the sectional race.
“It was a long way to go for a regional, but the boys handled it well,” Burnett said. “We were able to take advantage of our team depth and allow some of our top guys to rest while others were able to get big meet experience.”
The runners who carried the load for O’Fallon included Top 10 finishers Hayden Ybarra (8th) and Garrett Blenkush (10th). Other Panther harriers who contributed important points were Zion Ward (12th), Johnathan Whitaker (19th) and Ashton Hess (21st).