Runners for the Evanston girls and boys cross country teams are still holding out hope that the Illinois High School Association will find a way to conduct a postseason series for their sport.

If not, they’ll just have to make the best of a pandemic situation.

With an abbreviated schedule consisting only of dual meets against Central Suburban League South division opponents — and no multi-team Saturday invitationals — the Wildkits will have to find ways to motivate themselves without any individual medals at stake.

Both squads open on Saturday, with the girls traveling to Maine South and the boys hosting Glenbrook South.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely prevent the IHSA from conducting state finals in any of the fall sports, although the state organization won’t make a final decision until there’s overwhelming evidence that there won’t be a dramatic turnaround in health conditions in Illinois.

That would be a blow to at least one Wildkit runner in particular. Senior Hope Leman is coming off her best season, placing 27th at the state finals and missing on an All-State designation by just two places. She finished 2nd at the conference meet last fall, and placed 8th at the sectional before turning in the race of her life at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

Ten of the runners who finished ahead of her in Peoria have graduated. But Leman, who also reached the state finals as a freshman at Deerfield, might not get another opportunity in her final season.

“If there’s no state meet, that would be a bummer,” Leman admitted. “I wish I’d get another opportunity to run there. It’s such an exhilarating feeling, being there with all of those great runners. To have all of us come together and finish the season down there is just so cool.

“Cross country is my favorite sport and I’d definitely be sad if we had no season at all. I’m so grateful we at least have something, because a lot of the kids in other sports didn’t know if they’d even have a season.”

Leman experienced the loneliness of the long distance runner over the summer, when training partners weren’t available. She still logged about 4 miles per day, and turned in several  long runs. “But it was a little harder for me to get into a routine running all by myself,” she pointed out.

“Now that school has started (with remote learning at ETHS), I guess running is even more important to me because it gets me away from the computer screen, gets me out in the fresh air and allows me to do more socializing. You lose that element when school is online, because now you don’t have 5 minutes before class to just talk to your friends at school.

“This season will feel a little different. It’s easy to complain, but everyone is trying to do their best with this situation. I just want to have a good season.”

Leman is the lead runner returning from a sectional qualifying team that also included two current sophomores, Ella Gutierrez and Lauren Dain. Gutierrez emerged as the Kits’ No. 2 runner midway through last year and earned a 14th place showing at the conference meet.

Evanston’s boys also produced a sectional qualifying team a year ago, but Coach Donald Michelin Jr. has only 3 of his top 7 back in action. One runner has opted out because of the nationwide health scare.

The Wildkits will build their pack around senior leaders Ellis Allen and Owen Briggeman, and rising juniors like Declan Ahern, Essay Tolosa, Solomon Greene, Dylan Elyer, Sonny Granzetto and Luke Ng. Two freshmen, Jack Kleinschmitt and Henry O’Malley, also show promise.

Michelin Jr. has no problem seeing a truncated schedule as a plus. In the past, the Wildkits haven’t performed well in Saturday invitationals and now the ETHS coach can continue to build a running culture with head-to-head competition against conference toughies like New Trier and Maine South earning the focus for runners who still need to learn how to compete.

“No invitationals and no postseason will actually take some of the pressure off us,” said Michelin Jr. “I don’t mind just running dual meets. It’s an opportunity to get them to change their mindsets, because what we’ve had in the past are runners, not competitors. I think it will be great for this group to go head to head with the other schools in the conference instead. I think this group will be a little more competitive.”

The Kits even turned a negative — the cancellation of the track season last spring when the pandemic first hit the United States — into a positive, according to Michelin Jr.

“Once the track season got cut out, we still had about 25-30 guys get together and run from April to July,” he noted. “We’ve never had that many guys put in 300 miles (total) before. We’ve never run that kind of mileage, and what’s great about it is now it’s the norm. It will happen every year because the younger guys know that’s the expectation now.

“I really like the situation we’re in right now.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...