By Marty Farmer
The Riverside-Brookfield High School boys and girls cross country teams maintained their winning ways at the IHSA Cross Country State Championship over the weekend. Competing at Peoria's Detweiller Park, the boys finished eighth and the girls 17th in Class 2A competition.
During the season, the RBHS teams fell just short of a clean sweep of conference, regional and sectional championships. The girls placed second at regionals.
First-year girls head coach Blair Jensen believes the impressive results reinforce the lessons that the RBHS coaches have tried to pass along to the runners.
"It's a source of pride and confirmation that the strategies used by our coaches are working and successfully producing great runners," Jensen said. "Being a first-year coach, I realized the past is what has set the girls up for success. … I hope to continue the tradition of helping the girls be successful at running and enjoying a lifestyle that includes running."
While both Forberg and Jensen have contributed to the teams' successes, a bevy of talented runners has certainly helped.
The senior-laden boys team excelled at state with their "pack mentality." The team produced the best result for the boys program in over 40 years.
"The pack mentality that coach Forberg has been focusing on has helped us close gaps in our top five," RBHS senior Jason Noel said. "The top three of Jack [Sagan], Jacob [Wardzala] and Connor [O'Brien] has been always been strong, but Forberg has pushed Ryan [Hahn] and myself to close that for a tighter pack. I think that mentality has helped our team to finish each race strong."
Wardzala, who earned an All-State medal with a top-25 finish, recorded the Bulldogs' fastest time at 15 minutes, 16 seconds to finish 22nd in the individual standings.
"I felt we had a great showing at state, with all seven of our runners either running personal bests or running within a few seconds of their best times," Wardzala said. "Individually, state was my best race, running about 30 seconds better than my previous best and placing in the top 25."
Fellow seniors O'Brien (56th/15:49), Sagan (58th/15:49), Noel (73rd/15:54) and Hahn (142nd/16:33) rounded out the top five runners for RBHS. Junior Chris Magno, who will be one of the team's top returners, finished with a time of 16:41 (154th). David Keen, who also comes back next season, crossed the finish at 17:06 (181st).
"As a team, I think we performed great," Noel said. "My teammates and I put up best times and we finished in the top 10 as team, which feels great."
Hahn credited Forberg with much of the credit for the Bulldogs' success.
"He makes sure to develop us as people and students rather than just runners," Hahn said. "My teammates have really become a family. I'm proud of the legacy we've left at RB."
In the girls race, the Bulldogs finished 17th with 408 points. RBHS produced its second-best result ever at the state meet.
Junior Tara Janney led the way with a time of 18:35, good for 51st. Nadia Kaczmarz (77th/18:59) and Hailey Jurgens (81st/19:01) also placed among the top 100.
Juniors Melissa Oliveira Liz (155th/19:56), Niela Callanan (173rd/20:12), Cora Lutes (165th/20:04) and freshman Tess Bruno (182nd/20:21) also represented the Bulldogs.
"I believe the team's success definitely had a lot to do with our qualifying as a team last year," Jurgens said. "Everyone wanted to get back down and accomplish even more than what we did. Also, I think the chemistry we had between everyone on the team helped a lot."
Looking ahead, the future appears very bright, considering RBHS returns every state qualifier except Jurgens. The return of Emma Fortman, who was injured this year, will make the Bulldogs even more formidable. The program boasts excellent depth.
"We all know it's not seven runners that make a cross country team or even the 12 that went to down Peoria," Jensen said. "It has been a team effort where all the girls contributed. We have girls that ran varsity as freshmen and weren't on this state team, but they still contributed."
Reflective of the Bulldogs' promising roster, Jensen also flourished as a rookie head coach.
"Coach Jensen's main goal was to get us to state but also keep us injury free," Oliveira Liz said. "He took every single runner's needs and differences under consideration and made sure their plan would lead us to success. He's such a caring coach."