As an incoming freshman, Riverside-Brookfield senior Mateo Nunez had no choice.
“I didn’t want to do a sport at first. My parents made me,” Nunez said. “I knew one of my friends was going to go out for cross country, but I didn’t know what that entailed. It was my first running experience.”
Nunez made his next big athletic decision during the 2014 track and field season.
It was to become a better runner.
Nunez’s mentality and leadership has helped to put the Bulldogs in position for their highest state cross country finish in more than 40 years. As No. 7 in the Class 2A state rankings Oct. 4, RBHS is the highest rated team for the Wheaton Academy Sectional Oct. 29, and the top five teams at sectionals advance to state.
Nunez, 40th as a 2015 Class 2A individual state qualifier (15 minutes, 26 seconds for 3.0 miles), is striving to become the Bulldogs’ first top-25, all-state individual since 1975, when the state meet was only one class.
RBHS competes at the Metro Suburban Conference Meet Saturday.
“We’re good because of hard training and commitment,” Nunez said. “As long as we give 100 percent, there’s nothing else we can give.
“We approach every race with a humble mentality. We know who we are and where we stand in the rankings, but we know that’s subject to change every race. (RBHS coach Larry Forberg) told us we were the ones trying to catch other teams and fight for this, fight for that. Now R-B is a team to catch.”
Despite numerous top-10 invite finishes, Nunez feels he should be running better. The Bulldogs’ gap also continues to improve between their consistent top-four finishers – Nunez and juniors Connor O’Brien, Jack Sagan and Jacob Wardzala — and No. 5 finisher, the last that counts toward the team score.
Senior Matt Zamudio, back from an early-season knee injury, was part of last year’s seventh-place sectional lineup. Other top-five contenders are juniors Jason Noel and Ryan Hahn and sophomore David Keen.
At the RBHS Invite Sept. 16, Nunez won (15:58.5) and the Bulldogs (38) won by four points over Fenwick. Sagan (16:23.7), O’Brien (16:32.5) and Wardzala (17:06.8) were fourth, fifth and seventh and Noel (18:11.8) and Keen (18:20.5) were 21st and 22nd.
At the Sterling Invite Saturday, Nunez was sixth (15:26.4) with O’Brien (30th), Sagan (35th) and Wardzala (45th) also among the top 45. The Bulldogs (164) were seventh and behind the other two top-10 2A teams.
“If every week, they can say we worked hard and we ran a good race, I’m happy, and I think they’re happy,” Forberg said. “(Nunez has) had good leadership on the team, set a good example. What’s nice is he, Connor, Jack, Jacob, when they finish mile repeats (in practice), they walk back toward the guys coming after and they’re cheering them on.”
At the 2015 MSC West Meet, the Bulldogs were fourth and Nunez was second to current Fenton senior Jose Vazquez-Perez, 54th at 2A state.
At the regional, Nunez (15:54) broke the RBHS previous course record but was second by 19 seconds.
The Bulldogs once again will play host to regionals Oct. 22.
“I would like to sweep the postseason – conference, regional, sectional wins, maybe even set a couple of course records,” Nunez said. “Come state, depending on how I feel, I’m going to go for at least top 5, top 3. My body feels great. My training’s been going good.”
As a freshman, Nunez’s fastest mile during a cross country season hampered by injury was 6:06.
By track season, Nunez brought it down to 4:56.
“He once said, ‘How could I get better?'” Forberg recalled. “I said instead of running with your friends at the back of the pack, during practice move up to the next pack. When he saw he could do (sub-5:00), he was like, ‘Oh. OK.’