After making jump from ninth place to third at the state 1A cross country meet last year, Benton senior Amelia "Mia" McLain had dedicated her final high school season to winning the Rangerettes first cross country title.
"My community and my family expect a state championship and that has always been a goal of mine," McLain said. "While the goal is the same I want to work even harder to achieve it, so I won’t look back and question whether I did this or that. Even if I end up second or whatever I will know I did my best."
If she is successful, McLain will make it a family affair, joining her father and coach Brent McLain, who won Benton’s only boys cross country title in 1982 in 2A.
"My dad ran in high school and college and coached for a very long time, so on weekends I would be watching cross country meets with my mom," Mia said. "Then when sixth grade rolled around I found I was good at it."
McLain made a similar jump in middle school where she finished 13th at state in sixth grade before jumping up to fourth in seventh and finally winning the state title in eighth grade.
Last year coach and daughter changed their summer workouts, resulting in a big finish and this year they have tweaked her routine again with the title in mind.
"Every summer we add a little more mileage and that helped last year," Mia said. "This summer we bumped up the mileage again, but we also added a faster pace and little things like going harder on the weights and legs."
Mia still has a big challenge ahead despite the fact the last year's state champion graduated. Lianna Surtz, from Aurora Rosary, who finished second in 2A is now competing in 1A.
"Even without Surtz the girls coming back are very strong, including the girl who finished second ahead of me," Mia said. "At the end of July, I went to Detweiller at Dark for the first time, a meet held on the state course at 9 o’clock at night, and I beat the time I wanted to break, just off summer miles and not speed work. I was real happy with that."
For the past couple years Du Quoin senior Gabby Alongi and Massac County junior Ansley Bailey have been mentioned in the same sentence as McLain. Both are back and are expected to make a run for All-State honors. Alongi finished 52nd and Bailey 63rd last year with Hamilton County sophomore Maddie Karcher joining that group with a 60th place finish.
The Du Quoin girls team made history with its best finish (17th) even with four freshmen in the lineup. Olivia Phillips led the young Lady Indians with a 76 place finish followed by Grace Alongi (125), Maddie Decker (140) and Alexis George (164). Also back is junior Jacqueline Crain (163).
"A lot of that was talent," said Du Quoin coach Eric Kirkpatrick. "We had Phillips, Grace Alongi, Decker and George coming in with experience on the junior high level, so we knew what had in them. Then you match them up with Gabby and that's a good recipe for success."
As far as the Benton girls and boys teams are concerned it could be a banner year for both. Last year Hailey Wallace joined Mia at state and finished 47th as a freshman and she followed that up with a great track season. Also back are junior Addisyn Miller, sophomore Peyton Tieffel and Mia’s twin sister Madi while Addisyn Miller’s younger sister Braylyn Miller is joining the team as a freshman.
For the boys, which finished 19th last year, McLain returns three All-South runners in seniors Joey Sample and Brady Gischer and sophomore Chase Owens along with junior Parker Sieveking. Junior Reece Johnson, who finished 51st in 1A, has transferred to Benton from Neoga.
"We’re in an unusual situation where we’re smiling with three All-South runners back," McLain said. "Chase has the fastest times for freshman in Benton history, so we have three unbelievable runners back."
Carbondale also has two strong teams with the boys finishing 17th and the girls 25th last year in 2A. Despite having lost two runners, including his No. 1 Ethan Cherry, coach Greg Storm returns the rest of his young boys squad in sophomore Alex Partlow and juniors Tucker Poshard, Jackson Watts, Ethan Stevens and Jackson Beaupre.
"We don’t have a lot of depth, so where we finish will kind of depend on our health, but what we do have returning is experience," said Carbondale coach Greg Storm. "Some of the guys had a pretty decent track season with personal bests, so hopefully they can carry that motivation into this season."
The girls were equally as young and return all but two of the squad, including its top two runners sophomore Anna Schurz (52) and junior Madeline Prideaux (66). Also back are sophomore Abby Menkhaus and juniors Kara Holub and Sadie Torre.
"We’re young, but they have the experience from the postseason like the boys and hopefully be able to build off that," Storm said. "For most of the season Madeline was our top runner and conference champion, second at regional and third at sectional. The key to returning to the top 25 with our lack of depth is our back half having to produce."
In 1A girls, Pinckneyville finished 25th as a team will all seven of its runners finishing within 38 spots of each other. The Lady Panthers top runner didn’t come out this season, but sophomores Taylor Kurtz (152), Cageny Kwiatowski (155) and Emma Francis (181), junior Paige Epplin (167) and seniors Olivia Buza (168) and Aubrey Bruns (174) are back for another crack.
"Everybody else is back and we also have a few freshmen who might make an impact," said Pinckneyville coach Ryan Bruns. "It looks like on paper we could be as good as we’ve ever been."
Also in 1A boys, Sparta senior Isaac Sinn (49th), Carmi-White County junior Ty Barbre (69th) and Sample (70th) were the top local finishers.
Steeleville finished 22nd as a team, but lost four key seniors. Returning are senior Ronin Dorion (111) and sophomore Christian Reese (191).
In 2A boys, Centralia finished 15th led by juniors Brooks Harlan (49), Cory Fleeman (72) and senior Mat Speidel (85). Also back are seniors Jared Brothers and Adam Moulder.