Bittersweet was the only word to accurately describe the feeling for Evanston’s girls cross country team at Saturday’s Class 3A Niles West Sectional meet.
Junior Enyaeva Michelin claimed a spot in the Illinois High School Association state finals next Saturday in Peoria, but for the rest of the Wildkits — including two-time state qualifier Emma Dzwierzynski — close didn’t count.
ETHS placed sixth in the team standings, and freshman Samantha Steman and Dzwierzynski missed out on individual qualifying spots by 4 and 9 seconds, respectively, under the IHSA setup where the top five placing teams at the sectional and the top 7 individual runners who aren’t part of those teams automatically advance.
Most of the tears shed after the race weren’t tears of joy for the Wildkits.
“It was a pretty heartbreaking bus ride home, especially for Emma,” said ETHS head coach Rosette Ochoa. “All season we knew that all 3 of them had the potential to make it to State and they all supported each other so well. It was a bittersweet finish for them, and Emma has been such an inspiration to all of the other girls. She was an amazing leader for us for all 4 years.”
Dzwierzynski, who placed 79th at State as sophomore and 77th last fall, was the only senior in Evanston’s starting seven this fall. Evanston finished sixth at the sectional with 154 points behind qualifiers Glenbard West (72), Wheaton Warrenville South (81), New Trier (103), Maine South (111) and York (124) in the 18-team field.
Michelin raced to a 14th place finish over the 3-mile course clocked in 18 minutes, 37.1 seconds. Next in order for the Wildkits were freshman Steman, 19th in 18:43.28; Dzwierzynski, 20th in 18:48.40; freshman Eavan Norman, 47th in 19:28.47; sophomore Grace Naquin, 60th in 19:48.48; freshman Gabrielle Horton, 72nd in 20:07.43; and junior Zoe Hadley, 87th in 20:24.04.
Michelin missed most of the last month of competition due to severe tendinitis in her leg and, in fact, had to drop out of the Central Suburban League championship race after the first mile due to leg pain just one week prior to the sectional qualifying meet.
She’s still not 100 percent physically — but her season isn’t over yet. And she’ll have a chance to return the favor to Dzwierzynski after accompanying her best running buddy Downstate last year as a spectator.
“I told Emma she could pick two of her teammates to bring along as company, and Enyaeva was one of the girls who went down to Peoria to cheer for her,” Ochoa said. “I think it helped fuel Enyaeva for this season. It was an opportunity for her to see what it was like at State, and I think she was in awe just watching the whole thing.
“Enyaeva has always looked up to Emma and she’s worked hard to get to this point. It’s amazing to see what she did, coming off of the injury like that. I think she’s feeling a little better right now and I’d like to see her take more risks down at Peoria. She broke 18 minutes once this year (at Warren on a shorter course) and I’d love to see her down it again.”
“I was really expecting Emma and Sam to make it, too, and it was hard for me to celebrate anything because they didn’t make it,” Michelin said after the bad news arrived following the sectional race. “Watching Emma at State last year was really inspiring for me and I was super motivated after that. I’m more excited now than I am nervous about it. It’s an amazing opportunity for me.
“I’ve run on that course (Detweiller Park) in the First to the Finish Invitational the past three years and it’s really my favorite course. I love the uphill finish and I think it’s a huge advantage for me that I’ve run there before. Ideally, I’d have a goal to break 18 minutes. My other goal was a top 50 finish, but that was before I was injured mid-season. You never know what can happen down there, though.”
Michelin emerged as the cross country squad’s No. 2 runner last year, behind Dzwierzynski, and did earn all-conference honors as a sophomore. But she enjoyed more success during the spring track season. She dropped down to run mostly 800 meters for the Wildkit varsity and missed qualifying for the state meet by a mere 1 second in that race.
So she devoted most of her summer workouts to speed work instead of distance, and did qualify for the US Junior Nationals in the 800 before opting not to make the trip to California for that competition.
“After just missing qualifying for State, I decided I had to get my act together because I was going to be a junior,” Michelin said. “I put in a lot of hard work this summer and took a risk with less mileage and more speed work. Now I’m able to get out faster in (cross country) races and I’ve been able to maintain longer, too. Now I want to work on being able to finish stronger.”
“I think the biggest difference this year for Enyaeva is that she’s been able to maintain her pace longer in races,” Ochoa pointed out. “She can run uncomfortable longer, and that’s important for a distance runner. She’s able to push herself out fast and she’s still OK with being uncomfortable during a race.
“We had a great season as a team this year. We got a lot better, we grew a lot and we jumped up six spots at a really tough sectional (after placing 11th last year).”
On the boys side, Evanston’s four sectional qualifiers built on a solid season and all four are underclassmen who will benefit from their postseason experience next year. Junior Logan Singer paced the Kits in 58th place, timed in 16:22.69, and other competitors for the Wildkits were sophomore Julion Michelin, 84th in 16:45.67; sophomore Max Ebeling, 90th in 16:53.40; and freshman James Moran, 121st in 17:21.76.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.