No matter whether it’s playing sports or playing games against his friends, Essay Tolosa considers himself to be a competitive person.

That attribute paid off in a big way Saturday for the Evanston junior.

Tolosa edged Stephen Barretto of Rolling Meadows by the closest margin possible — one hundredth of a second — and captured the individual championship at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A regional cross country meet hosted by Hoffman Estates.

A refuse-to-lose attitude powered Tolosa to a winning time of 15 minutes, 24.55 seconds to 15:24.56 for Barretto, who stumbled across the finish line in the closest possible finish.

The last time an ETHS male runner claimed a regional cross country championship was in 2003 — by Alex Robin — and Tolosa wasn’t even born at that point. His determination powered him to the top against an equally determined Barretto.

“Essay really wanted to be a regional champion,” said Evanston head coach Don Michelin Jr. “So did the other kid. The guy from Rolling Meadows was running with his elbows out — he’d have been in Essay’s lane if this was a track meet — and at one point he hit him in the face with his elbow.

“But there was no stopping Essay. He kept trying to get around him the last 60 meters of the race, and he finally did it. He gets more confident every time he runs.”

Both the Evanston boys and girls teams earned trips to next week’s sectional meet, also scheduled at Hoffman Estates, with identical 3rd place finishes. On the boys side, ETHS scored 80 points and only trailed Prospect (54) and Maine West (75) in the 11-team field. The Wildkit girls, paced by Hope Leman’s 9th place effort, totaled 103 points and advanced along with front-runners Prospect (20) and Glenbrook South (103).

Tolosa’s photo finish win wasn’t clear until at least 30 minutes after the conclusion of the race and a video replay confirmed his first place finish.

“Coach told me before the race just to sit on him (Barretto) and use my kick at the end,” Tolosa said. “But I kicked way too early because I didn’t realize there was another lap to the race. So I had to kick again and I sprinted the last 300 (yards). Honestly, I was feeling pretty tired at that point. It was a very, very close call at the end.

“Right before he fell he hit me in the jaw with his elbow, and I was shocked for a second. But I didn’t slow down, I just kept going strong. It’s crazy that I won, but I can’t mess up like that again. I have to wait for the perfect moment, and strike when I get the chance.”

Tolosa’s more conservative approach is a switch from early in the season, when the junior runner — still learning when it comes to the longer 3 mile distance after not participating in cross country last year — tried to run right to the lead and bury the competition.

It worked, up to a point, but Michelin Jr. finally convinced the ETHS standout that it’s a strategy that wouldn’t fly against more experienced and elite runners.

“You can’t burn out experienced runners by pushing the pace. We’re trying to make Essay into a more complete runner,” the coach pointed out.

The Wildkits also counted a 10th place finish by Declan Ahern in 16:19.50; a 20th by Ellis Allen in 16:44.94; a 21st by Sonny Granzetto in 16:45.17; and a 28th by Solomon Greene in 16:59.03.

Ahern, who was keeping pace with Tolosa during early season workouts, is still on the mend from a painful shin injury but turned in one of his best races to date Saturday. “If he hadn’t been hurt, he’d probably only be 5-10 seconds off of what Essay runs, because when he got hurt, that’s when Essay made his drop,” said Michelin Jr. “He’s getting back into a groove now and I’ve seen a lot of improvement in practice.”

In the girls race Leman, a state qualifier as a junior and a freshman (at Deerfield), didn’t challenge eventual winner Hailey Erickson of Prospect (18:59 flat) but was clocked in a solid 19:45.31 on her way to a 10th place finish.

Backing her up for ETHS were senior Emily McCandlish, 21st in 21:14.92; senior Mollie Davis, 22nd in 21:16.34; Gabrielle Froum, 23rd in 21:20.01; and junior Tate Lucas, 28th in 21:38.24.