First-year head coach Beth Arey wasn’t fooled while taking her Evanston Girl’s Cross Country team to Skokie for the Pat Savage Invitational meet hosted by Niles West High School.

Arey knew that most of the powerhouse teams in the Central Suburban League South division – and others like state power Prospect High School – didn’t send the best runners to the meet Saturday.

Wildkits Girls Cross Country team 2022 from their Sept. 3 meet. Credit: via Facebook

But the Wildkits still weren’t about to give back their second place team trophy, either.

Sophomore Stella Davis scored a fifth place finish and led the Wildkits to the runner-up spot in the 3A White Division team standings with 109 points, behind only Oswego High School (84) on a sunny morning in Skokie.

Evanston added a sixth place team finish in the boys competition in the White Division behind another sophomore, 14th place finisher Sam Froum.

Since Arey inherited the 2022 schedule of invites from her predecessor, Rosette Ochoa, she’s still weighing which invitationals she wants to return to in 2023. Neither Wildkit coach, of course, can control what the competition does in a given year but Evanston did score its best team finish in years, regardless of who showed up for the three-mile test.

Davis delivered as the squad’s No. 1 runner and has scored top 25 finishes in every single invitational to date. Her time of 18 minutes, 54.97 seconds was 20 seconds quicker than she ran at the same meet a year ago – and that’s all that mattered to Davis on Saturday.

The Wildkits also counted sophomore Sammy Schuneman, seventh in 19:14.67; freshman Rory Malia, 11th in 19:33.53; sophomore Fiona Vosper, 37th in 20:37.43; and senior Sophia Milner-Gorvine, 49th in 20:57.39, toward the team score.

Wildkits Girls Cross Country team 2022 from Sept. 3 meet. Credit: via Facebook

Runners at all levels competed in one race, with scores separated by meet officials into Red and White Division results.

“I ran a good 20 seconds faster today and I think I was one place higher. But the most important thing is to look at the times,” Davis explained before she saw the official results. “It’s been a challenge to find someone to push me this year in our workouts, but I’m learning more about the mental aspect of cross country and how you have to push yourself.”

Davis and graduate standout Lauren Dain just missed qualifying for the Illinois High School Association state finals last fall. Now Davis is the No. 1 racer in a new-look program that features several new varsity runners and a new head coach.

The ETHS sophomore didn’t run track last spring, opting to play for the school’s freshman soccer team, and so in a sense she’s trying to play catch-up to the elite runners in the area and the state. But she spent three weeks this summer training at a high-altitude runners’ camp in Colorado and appears to have established the base she needs while combining it with the speed workouts utilized by Arey.

Davis is still trying to conquer the middle mile in a 3-mile race, which gives her something in common with other elite runners, too.

And she left no doubt Saturday that she’s committed to pursuing success as a runner in both cross country and track.

“I put in a lot of mileage over the summer and with the speed work I’m doing now, I think it’s balancing out well,” Davis said. “I’m just going to focus on running from now on.

“I’ll run track [in the spring] and I think that running is really my calling. I had a really good experience in soccer, but I just felt like all of the other top [cross country] girls also run track, and I didn’t want to fall behind.

“Today I think I did a better job of picking things up in that second mile and I want to keep working on getting even splits (comparable times over the first, second and third miles.”

“I had no expectations coming in, I just wanted them to run fast today,” said Arey. “It’s exciting for the girls to get that plaque but the competition wasn’t really here today.

“The important thing is that our top three girls this year are ahead of where our top two [Dain and Davis] were last year. They’re all getting faster. We’re still trying to lower the [time] gap between No. 3 and No. 5. We didn’t really have that today.

“Stella is really thoughtful and hungry for improvement, wants to fix things whenever she can. She stuck around our quad meet last Tuesday [after dark] because she didn’t want to wait until the next day to talk to me about how she could do better. She definitely should be a state qualifier this year, and if she works on that middle mile, she should be in a position for the opportunity to be an All-State runner.”

Boys coach Donald Michelin Jr. is trying to instill a “pack” mentality into his group of runners and the Kits couldn’t quite pull off that strategy to their satisfaction Saturday when senior Torin Ravi got caught in a crowd at the start of the race and eventually had to settle for 25th place in 16:14.89.

That was well behind Froum’s effort of 16:00.05 for a competitor who has been within a couple of seconds of his sophomore classmate all fall. Next best for the Wildkits were junior Jack Kleinschmit, 36th in 16:46.48; junior Henry O’Malley, 40th in 16:50.62; and senior David Choldin, 43rd in 16:55.24.

That added up to 158 points in the team standings, behind Oswego East (63), St. Ignatius (71), Oswego (119), New Trier (121) and Loyola Academy (125).

“Henry and Sam got out fast and were able to avoid the bottleneck [of runners],” Michelin pointed out, “but Torin was not able to and there was a lot of pushing and shoving out there. He ran a good race after that.

“Sam’s time was our second fastest of the season and I think he can be a good beacon [front-runner to feed off of in a pack] for the rest of the guys. I’m happy with where we are as a team and I think we still have a lot of potential to drop time.  We want to run as a pack – they’re still learning how to make this into a team sport instead of worrying about PRs (personal records) in every invite – and now that Sam is starting to take off, the others can just clear their minds of everything and try to run with him.”

Froum reached outside his comfort zone Saturday and paid the price with a stiff back in the aftermath that forced him to lie down and try to stretch it out on the floor of the Niles West fieldhouse while the lower level races were run.

“Sam really forced it today, and I think it was his best race because he really put it out there,” praised the Evanston coach. “He hurt his back because of that extra effort and really pushed out of his comfort zone.”

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