Joey Eovaldi didn’t know what place he was in as he neared the finish line at last Saturday’s Class 3A Lake Park Sectional cross country meet.
All the Evanston senior was trying to do was catch as many opposing runners as he could.
Eovaldi’s brilliant stretch run allowed him to catch Lane Tech’s Julian Higueros precisely at the finish stripe and claim the final individual qualifying spot for the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state finals Saturday in Peoria.
Eovaldi edged Higueros by four-hundredths of a second and became the first ETHS male runner to reach the state finals since Matt Marol in 2008. He nailed down the last qualifying spot as an individual as one of the top 7 finishers who weren’t members of advancing teams.
Evanston missed out on a team berth after placing 8th with 200 points. Glenbard West (58), Wheaton Warrenville South (67), York (117), Whitney Young (146) and New Trier (155) qualified as full teams.
Eovaldi placed 21st overall, clocked in 15 minutes, 20.48 seconds compared to the time of 15:20.52 posted by Higueros. The Wildkits also counted senior Logan Singer, 28th in 15:28; sophomore James Moran, 29th in 15:29; junior Max Ebeling, 42nd in 15:50; and junior Julion Michelin, 86th in 16:32.
“Four years of hard work and dedication and commitment to the sport, and it all came down to four-hundredths of a second for me,” Eovaldi said. “In all that time I think I’ve learned how to compete and how to be strong. With about 800 meters left I was even with 3 other guys, and I made the decision just to go and not think about the pain. I knew that it could have been my last race.
“I expected the team to go to State, too, so it was a weird feeling for me. It’s sad — but I’ll enjoy that last race.”
Eovaldi had to wait more than 30 minutes after the race to find out his season had one more week to go.
“My hands were so cold and I was just trying to keep warm in the (team) tent,” he recalled. “Then Coach (head coach Donald Michelin Jr.) came over and told me I missed making it. But then he said he was just messing with me, and that I had qualified.”
“I was looking more at the team race, so I didn’t know where Joey stood (in the individual standings). It looked to me like the Lane Tech guy slowed down on the (finish) carpet),” said Michelin. “I think Joey locked in on that guy with about 150 yards to go and I didn’t think he’d be able to fight through. But he got that kid with his final kick.
“Like the other guys, Joey’s had his ups and downs this year. They’ve all run great in time trials and they’ve been exceptional when there’s no pressure on them. The hard part was getting them to run well in the races.
“Now I think Joey believes in his own abilities. He took a positive mindset into the postseason races and now he’s like The Little Engine That Could. He’s made steady progress all season and I think he’ll have an even bigger leap in the (spring) track season. He has the intensity now, and he knows how to put it to good use.”
Eovaldi agreed that learning how to compete was the biggest step he’s taken this fall.
“Starting back with track in the summer, I changed my mentality and learned how to compete,” said the ETHS senior. “What Coach Michelin stressed is that we take that track mentality over to cross country when it comes to competing, and we were finally able to do it in that quad where we beat New Trier (for the first time in 18 years). We realized that, just like in track, you have to have that killer mentality when you step to the (starting) line.
“I knew from Day 1 that I could do this, and I’m honored to go Downstate. As a program we had one of the best seasons in about two decades and it was awesome for me to be a part of it. We ran real well at the sectional, and I think the future is really bright for the program. We can expect excellence now, and I think we’ll have 4 guys under 15:30 next year.”
“Our times were exceptional, and this is where I thought we’d be at the beginning of the year,” Michelin added. “Logan and James ran just great, and I couldn’t have asked for more from Max.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.