Rockford-area runners trophy hunting at IHSA cross country state finals

Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star
The Winnebago girls cross country team starts off the Class 1A Oregon Sectional on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. The Winnebago girls finished first overall out of 20 teams and will compete in the state finals in Peoria on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.

The Illinois High School Association cross country season has reached the pinnacle, with four Rockford-area teams and 14 other area individuals now getting set to run at the state meet in Peoria on Saturday.

Last weekend's sectionals set it all up, and now those who are still kicking are looking to finish strong.

More cross country:12 top Rockford-area cross country runners headed into the IHSA postseason

From Class 1A, where the Winnebago girls look ready to defend their 2019 team state championship, to 2A, where the Belvidere North boys are hitting their stride, and 3A, where six locals from Hononegah and Guilford head in with momentum, there are plenty of storylines surrounding our area runners headed to state.

Here is a breakdown of what to watch for in 1A, 2A and 3A, who qualified from the area, and the complete schedule:

Winnebago sets stage for state

The top six runners for Winnebago's girls — who all finished in the top 14 of Saturday's Oregon sectional — were all on the team when Winnebago won the 1A state title in 2019, the last time it was contested.

Now they appear ready to bring it home again.

Winnebago's Grace Erb nears the halfway point of the Class 1A Oregon Sectional cross country race on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. Erb led the entire race of 148 runners and won handily.

Winnebago scored 26 points to dominate the sectionals, led by a trio of juniors, including the meet's individual champion, Grace Erb, who clocked a 19:28.19 on the 3.1-mile course. Marissa Roggensack came in third and Kaylee Woolery in fifth, followed by seniors Sophia Martino (seventh), Renee Rittmeyer (11th) and Katie Erb (14th).

"They're really focused and ready, and just excited to have this thing," Winnebago head coach Joe Erb said, referring to last year's state meet being canceled due to COVID-19. "They know they have a bullseye on them; they are very aware of that. But we're just fine with expecations. We have high expectations for ourselves.

"And it's time to go out and earn all those high expectations."

Rockford Christian won the 1A boys sectional title with 49 points, led by third-place finisher Ethan Walsh and fourth-place finisher Weston Forward. The pair will lead the Royal Lions into Peoria on Saturday as the top five teams out of each sectional advance to state in 1A, as well as the next 10 runners not on one of those teams.

In 2A and 3A, it's the top seven teams from each sectional that move on to state, as well as the next 10 best times.

The Rockford Christian cross country team starts of the Class 1A Oregon Sectional race on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. The team took first place with a total of 49 points.

Belvidere North boys shine

In 2A, the Belvidere North boys secured their trip to state as a team by placing fourth overall, led by senior Caden McNulty, who took 11th in 16:40.6. 

In the 3A showdown, three local boys emerged out of the pack to qualify for state, but no team made it out, boy or girl. Guilford's Brandon Lawson took seventh and advanced; Hononegah's Bailen Estrada moved on with a 16th-place finish; and Lawson's teammate Juan Del Real placed 19th, and earned a berth to state.

"Both Brandon and Juan ran aggressive and fearless," Guilford head coach Rick Durso said. "They ran like they belonged down state."

A trio of Hononegah girls proved they belong as well, led by junior Indigo Sterud who took 29th place. She'll be joined by teammates Hailey Henry (37th) and Allyson Niedfeldt (32nd).

Guilford junior Michelle Gasmund, the NIC-10 champ for the second year in a row, took 53rd place and fell short of advancing to state in 3.

Rockford-area state qualifiers

Class 1A

Teams: Winnebago girls; Rockford Christian boys; Rockford Christian girls

Individuals: (Boys) Aiden Ruiz, Dakota; Alessandro Bellini, Lutheran; Kyle Gnewuch, Lutheran; Nicolai Martino, Winnebago. (Girls) Anika Roush, Byron; Ella Dannhorn, Oregon.

Class 2A

Teams: Belvidere North boys.

Individuals: (Boys) Alex Valerio, Boylan. (Girls) Nina Fiore, Belvidere.

Class 3A

Teams: N/A

Individuals: (Boys) Juan Del Real, Guilford; Brandon Lawson, Guilford; Bailen Estrada, Hononegah. (Girls) Hailey Henry, Hononegah; Allyson Niedfeldt, Hononegah; Indigo Sterud, Hononegah.

When and where are the IHSA cross country state finals?

The IHSA state cross country meet is held at Detweiler Park, just off State Highway 29 North of Peoria, on Saturday.

The time schedule is as follows:

The 1A girls race will begin at 9 a.m.; the 1A boys race will start at 10 a.m.; the 2A girls race will start at 11 a.m.; the 2A boys race will start at noon; the 3A girls race will begin at 1 p.m.; the 3A boys race will start at 2 p.m.

The 1A awards ceremony will be held at 11 a.m.; the 2A awards ceremony will take place at 1 p.m.; and the 3A awards ceremony will be held at 3 p.m.

Jay Taft: jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft