Lyons’ Nicholas Strayer (left), Cillian Henning and Riverside-Brookfield’s Cooper Marrs lead early on during the Mike Kuharic Invitational at Lyons Township Saturday, Sept. 2, in Western Springs. | Steve Johnston
Ben Wuggazer

Junior Ben Wuggazer and his Lyons Township boys cross country teammates won their season-opening home invitational in early September.

The Lions’ seventh-place finish at Peoria High School’s First to the Finish Invitational at Detweiller Park was even more encouraging.

“We felt pretty good (about our invite). I think we felt we could do a little better and I think today we proved that we could do better,” Wuggazer said.

While senior all-stater Nick Strayer was ninth (14:45.10 for 3.0 miles) in his return to the state-meet course, the Lions saw improvement from its next group.

Wuggazer (33rd, 15:23.0) and junior Tate Pavelka (45th, 15:29.3) also earned top-50 individual medals, followed by seniors Mak Washchuk (66th, 15:39.5) and John Barrette (100th, 15:58.8) and juniors Charles Ciesla (103rd, 16:00.0) and John O’Halloran (125th, 16:12.0).

Strayer and fellow senior all-stater Cillian Henning finished 1-2 at the LT Invite, but Henning experienced hamstring issues afterward and sat out Saturday. With him alongside Strayer as usual, the Lions would have battled defending 3A champion Plainfield South (151) for third behind No. 1-ranked Downers Grove North (39) and Plainfield North (122).

Nick Strayer

“We accomplished what we wanted to and kind of figure out our lineup as far as who are the guys we’ll be looking at for those top seven spots,” said LTHS coach Mike Danner.

“Some guys moved up considerably effort-wise and time-wise. With Cillian in there, it’s five guys at 15:40 or better. That’s a pretty good lineup.”

At a wet and sloppy 2022 state meet, Strayer and Henning were ninth (15:06.67) and 10th (15:06.76). Four of the Lions’ other finishers graduated.

“(Detweiller is) a really special place. There’s nowhere like It,” Strayer said. “It’s kind of like the mecca of Illinois cross country, so to be able to be here early in the season, it’s a fun experience and great experience for the younger guys come November.”

Last season, Wuggazer was on track for being the team’s No. 3 state finisher but was injured for the postseason. He returned later in November to run with teammates at the Nike Cross Regionals.

On Saturday, Wuggazer improved five places and 19 seconds from his 2022 invite performance.

“I was much better in the triangle (area of the course). Last year, I feel like I was a little slower in that area but this year I was more confident,” Wuggazer said. “I would say our No. 3-4-5 (finishers) right now look really good. We’re definitely much more confident than we were yesterday.”

From last year’s invite, Barrette (16:23.7) and Washchuk (16:37.5) improved upon finishing 94th and 111th. Pavelka was 17th in the Open race (16:37.4).

Strayer also moved up from a disappointing 18th (15:17.8). Strayer was with the frontrunners Saturday before they made a surge around the two-mile mark. He was 8.5 seconds from the top five.

“I was feeling good at the end but too much room to make up,” Strayer said. “At least at this invite, I’ve struggled in the past so to be able to have at least a solid race today was definitely a step up.”