The coronavirus pandemic cost Essay Tolosa a chance to compete in the state cross-country meet last fall.

Tolosa made sure he took advantage of his second chance Saturday at the Hoffman Estates Sectional meet.

Now the Evanston Township High School senior will get a chance to see just how he measures up against the state’s elite runners. He earned the right to test the best in Illinois after claiming one of the 10 individual state qualifying spots Oct. 30 at the Class 3A sectional held at Busse Woods in Schaumburg.

Tolosa placed 30th overall on a muddy three-mile sectional course in a time of 16 minutes, 6 seconds. But as sweet as Tolosa’s accomplishment was after a year in which no Illinois High School Association state finals were held, the Wildkits also had to endure some bitter to go with the sweet.

Competing for the girls squad, senior Lauren Dain and freshman Stella Davis both fell into the “just miss” category as individual hopefuls and won’t be making the trip to Peoria for the state run next Saturday, Nov. 6.

The ETHS duo had the bad luck to be part of a loaded sectional field that featured more top-flight individuals on teams that didn’t qualify than usual. Even in an expanded field of qualifiers this year – seven teams advanced, instead of six as in the past – the pair’s top-35 individual finishes surprisingly didn’t make the cut.

Dain finished 31st in 18:52 and Davis ran 34th in 18:59. Those strong performances only ranked 13th and 14th, however, among the individual qualifiers not members of advancing teams.

Tolosa, who finished seventh in the sectional last year and would have run in Peoria as a junior if a state meet had been held, employed a change in strategy after faltering slightly at last week’s regional. In that race, he tried to run with New Trier star Nick Falk right from the start and faded back to 10th place by the finish.

Saturday he attacked from back in the pack and kept his season alive.

“I felt good today,” said the Evanston senior. “My plan was to work my way up [through the pack]. My time wasn’t amazing, but the course was so bad [muddy and wet] that I saw some guys fall and face-plant. I had to really slow down on the turns, and that affected my time a lot. I just decided I’d rather try to pass more guys than try to keep other guys from passing me [as a front-runner].”

Tolosa missed almost a month of training due to a concussion he suffered prior to preseason workouts and had to adjust his goals after that happened.

That’s why the senior was so excited to earn the right to keep running.

“I always felt like this was a possibility, even though my times were not that good,” he said. “Next week [at Peoria’s Detweiller Park] I’ll just try to find a group that runs in the 15:30s and I’ll try to stick with them and see how fast I can go.”

Tolosa’s performance led Evanston to a ninth-place finish overall in the team standings with 243 points. State-qualifying teams were New Trier (93), Barrington (99), Lake Zurich (100), Palatine (116), Hersey (136), Warren (152) and Prospect (185).

Also competing for the Wildkits were sophomore Henry O’Malley, 43rd in 16:28.6; senior Paul Garcia, 58th in 16:43.1; freshman Sam Froum, 63rd in 16:46.0; senior Dylan Eyler, 64th in 16:48.3; senior Solomon Greene, 117th in 17:28.0; and senior Sam Bennett, 121st in 17:37.9.

Greene missed the regional run due to illness and wasn’t up to par Saturday, either.

“I’m happy with the way we ran,” said Evanston head coach Donald Michelin Jr. “Our 3-4-5 guys had specific instructions, followed them to a T, ran as a group and really closed the door well.  I’m OK with just missing out [as a qualifying team] because if Solomon is anywhere near even his average condition, it makes up 40 spots easy for us. He looked great for the first mile but he wasn’t able to stay up there.

“We ran the same guys this week with the same team dynamic, but they ran so much tougher this week than last week. Essay is a great runner and we tried a game plan that didn’t work out at the regional, but he bounced back today after that blooper.

“Essay is such a natural talent as a racer, and he’s still not even close to his full potential. Right now he’s at maybe 60 or 70% of that and his best years are way ahead of him. Some college coach will be very, very blessed to have him.”

Last season for girls head coach

On the girls side, the tears flowed freely from both head coach Rosette Ochoa and her runners after they were left behind.

Ochoa had the opportunity to watch all her runners, particularly Dain and first-year runner Davis, blossom in her final season as head coach. It’s the first time in her seven years as head coach that ETHS won’t be represented at the state finals.

“I’ve decided to step down because I want to go back to school,” said Ochoa, who is pursuing a doctorate in education. “It’s always been a goal of mine, but I’ve put it on the back burner until now because I love what I do here so much. I just decided that it’s now or never, but I know whoever takes over the program will progress them even more.

“It was such a successful season. We just got shocked today. We never took it for granted [advancing to State], and we did everything we could today. There’s nothing we could change, except maybe to run in a different sectional.”

Dain was the only senior in Evanston’s top seven this year. Finishing behind the senior standout and Davis on Saturday in order were junior Margaret Gass, 66th in 19:46.7; junior Ella Gutierrez, 104th in 20:55.4; freshman Fiona Vosper, 119th in 21:25.9; junior Sophia Milner-Gorvine, 123rd in 21:37.3; and junior Caroline Klearman, 140th in 23.22.1.

The Wildkit girls finished 14th in the 18-team field with 319 points. Prospect won the team title with 86.

Dain came on strong to lead the ETHS pack in her final campaign, assuming a leadership role and also rediscovering her love for running at the same time.

“When I was named captain it was my responsibility to lead our summer program, and having to do that and get up to run every weekday at 6:30 made me more focused,” Dain said. “I’ve been running for a long time and I’ve got through phases where sometimes I struggled with it. It didn’t always come easy.

“But working with the younger girls and being in a leadership position got me back into that love of running. It sparked that joy in me again.

“Today I got spiked a couple of times. The course was quite muddy and on that uphill the footing was not great. So many people were competing and fighting for spots.”

Davis was denied a possible return trip to Peoria after finishing second in the state in the junior high finals a year ago while competing for Haven Middle School.

“This is definitely a lot more competitive than junior high was,” said the ETHS rookie. “When I saw there were 20 people in a pack right at the start it was kind of a shock. I realized right then it would be a different kind of race.

“I felt good on the first lap, but then the conditions got worse and worse. My goal was just to stick with Lauren. This was such a good environment to run in. There was so much cheering and it was overwhelming, but in a good way. I just had to stay calm and run my own race.”