Another banner year for the OTHS girls’ and boys’ cross country teams was confirmed this past week when 19 Panther runners earned recognition by being selected to the Belleville News-Democrat’s 2016 All-Area squad. Ten female and nine male runners made the cut to be included among the top thinclads during the fall season. Dominating the voting for the elite squad has become a staple for both O’Fallon High programs for over a decade, and 2016 proved no exception.
Leading the Panther contingent was junior standout Brooke Witzel, who earned her third consecutive Runner-of-the-Year award, this time sharing the distinction with Waterloo’s Jenna Schwartz. Since exploding on the scene her freshman year, Witzel has been a model of consistency, leading by example and producing outstanding results. After a relatively slow start, Witzel ended her junior season with a flourish, winning individual championships in the Southwestern Conference meet and the IHSA regional race. The junior harrier completed the season with a 33rd place finish in the IHSA state finals — another milestone in what has already become a sensational high school career.
For area opponents hoping for a chink in the Panthers’ armor, one doesn’t appear to be on the horizon as Witzel was joined on the BND first team by freshmen teammates Kaitlyn Walker, Sophie Wichlac and Emma Jordan. The ninth-grade quartet opened the season with top 10 finishes in major meets and continued to produce quality runs throughout the fall campaign. Attesting to the depth of the OTHS girls’ team, four more Panther runners were named to the all-area second team: Danna Jenkins, Katie Mank, Madeline McKittrick and Kaileigh Perrier. Two honorable mention selections — Maddie Collins and Janelle Vollmer — boosted the OTHS girls’ final All-Area total to ten runners.
The O’Fallon High boys’ team nearly equaled their female counterparts, garnering nine all-area spots. Topping the list of male runners were four Panthers who formed the nucleus of Coach Jon Burnett’s team and provided the impetus for another in a long string of state final appearances for the OTHS harriers. Seniors Chris Conrad and Joey Black, the two veteran team leaders for the 2016 squad, were top vote-getters and claimed spots on the BND first team. Outstanding sophomore runner Will VanAlstine also earned first-team honors, along with junior Matthew Gilster.
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The O’Fallon All-Area roster list doubled with four more team members tabbed as second team runners. Panther harriers earning second-team distinction included Garrett Blenkush, Luca Capistrant, Zion Ward and Hayden Ybarra. Johnathon Whitaker was included as an honorable mention pick.