The 2016 high school season was one of transition for O’Fallon junior Brooke Witzel.
One of the top Class 3A cross country thinclads in southern Illinois over the past two years, the soft-spoken Witzel was very comfortable in her background role for the Panthers, a perennial Class 3A state cross country meet qualifier.
But with the graduation of several seniors, Witzel was thrust into leadership this fall.
“The previous two years we had a lot of upper class runners who were the leaders of this team,” Witzel said. “I know I looked up to them as far as what to do in certain situations and in different meets. This year with most of those girls gone, I was one of the leaders. I’m not the most vocal person, and I don’t raise my voice that much, and so I tried to lead by example.
“Training and doing the right things in practice and hoping that the younger runners see this and that they see what it takes to be successful in this sport, it’s not easy.”
From the front of the pack, Witzel won her second Southwestern Conference championship and her second Class 3A Regional title.
She then bounced back from a sub-par performance in the sectional meet to place 33rd in the Class 3A State Meet at Detweiller Park in Peoria as the young O’Fallon team placed 21st in the 25-team competition.
Witzel’s finish has helped her earn the honor as the Belleville News-Democrat Co-Runner of the Year. It’s the third in as many years for Witzel, who shares this year’s honor with Jenna Schwartz of Waterloo.
“I had a good year. I wish I would have done a little better in a couple of the meets, but I’m looking forward to track and field in the spring and then coming back for my senior season next year,” Witzel said. “We’ve got a lot of very good young runners. We have a chance to be very strong next year.”
In the eyes of O’Fallon coach Neil James, Witzel was her strongest in the biggest situations.
Running with several freshmen in the starting lineup, the Panthers struggled a bit early in the season. But Witzel was there to lead her younger teammates.
“It was the same as it has been with Brooke for the past three years. She’s one of these athletes who gets better as the season goes on. She ran a great race at the conference and at the regional. Her time at the sectional wasn’t one of her best, but she came back and ran her best time ever at the state finals at Detweiller (Park),” James said. “It seems like she has the ability to be at her best in the biggest situations.
“That kind of ability helps her not only athletically, but in her academics as well. She’s also a great student.”
Witzel has also been one of the most consistent runners in the state in the past two state finals. As a sophomore, she placed 33rd overall in a time of 17 minutes, 29 seconds. This past November, Witzel was 33rd with 17:28.
“I did better this year,” Witzel said. “Am I disappointed about not winning a medal (top 25)? Not really. It would be nice because it would help the team do better. But personally, I just want to go out every meet and do my best. If I get medal, that’s great. But if I go out and at the end of the race, I know I did my best, that’s all I can do. I can live with it.”