First-year head coach Beth Arey produced a special treat for the members of the Evanston girls cross-country team at the conclusion of the Class 3A Hoffman Estates Sectional meet Saturday at Busse Woods.

Arey surprised her runners with bottles of chocolate milk all around.

“It’s our new tradition, because they’re always saying at our pasta dinners [before Saturday invitationals] that chocolate milk sounds good, but no one ever brings any,” said Arey.

That taste treat might need an upgrade – maybe to champagne? – in the next couple of years if the Wildkits can live up to the promise they’ve shown while building a foundation for future success this fall.

Stella Davis talking to Rory Malia and Sammy Schuneman. Credit: Brian Schuneman

With two sophomores and a freshman leading the way, Evanston managed a 12th place team finish and fell short in its qualifying bid to reach the Illinois High School Association state finals in Peoria next Saturday.

But they hadn’t even cooled off completely near the finish line when Stella Davis, Sammy Schuneman and Rory Malia started thinking about next year.

Davis fell into the “just miss” category for the second year in a row when it came to determining the individual at-large qualifiers, missing out by 11 seconds and 4 places with her 34th place effort of 18 minutes, 53.83 seconds. The top 10 finishers who are not members of qualifying teams earned the right to advance on their own, but Davis ranked 13th in that category.

Schuneman, 37th place in 18:57.42, and Malia, 41st place in 18:59, gave Evanston three finishers under 19 minutes. They were backed up by senior Ella Gutierrez, 109th in 20:41.45, and sophomore Talia Wisely, 20:51.01.

That left ETHS with a point total of 301, not counting the squad’s other individual entries, freshman Sam Caldwell (118th in 20.55.79) and junior Isabel Rosenberg (134th in 21:22.91).

It might seen like Arey’s runners have a lot of ground to make up chasing team state qualifiers like Prospect (40 points), Loyola Academy (141), Barrington (155), Palatine (176), Hersey (181), McHenry (197) and Jacobs (213). But the first-year coach is confident the experience those young runners gained Saturday will pay off at the finish line – maybe with some chocolate milk – in 2023 and 2024 and beyond.

“I was honest with them before this meet. I told them it was a long shot that we would make it to state,” said Arey. “But to hear them already excited about next year and talking about it right after they finished was really exciting. We finished higher than we did last year [12th compared to 14th] and so we made so incremental gains.

Coach Beth Arey with Davis (91), Malia (97) and Schuneman (101). Credit: Brian Schuneman

“I need them to set goals to be successful, if they’re going to qualify for state. We want that to be the expectation. I would like us to eventually work up to being the top team in the conference [Central Suburban League South division], because if we do that, it will follow us into the postseason.

“I thought we had a solid core of older girls coming into the season – but then the young ones stepped up instead, and this is even better than I expected. I just love their enthusiasm. Sammy and Rory are always engaged in the competition [with other teams] and they’re gaining confidence as individuals and each is driving the other one to do better. They never take a step back and they race the whole time. They pass people and I always see them surging, like they did today.”

Davis has already had success as a young runner, placing second in the state middle school cross country meet as an eighth grader, but both Malia and Schuneman are first-year runners who closed the gap on the Wildkits’ No. 1 runner by season’s end.

And Davis is already looking forward to being challenged further by other young runners coming into the program from Haven Middle School.

“I’m feeling a lot more hopeful about next year with Sammy and Rory back, and with some of the scuttlebutt I’ve heard about the girls who will be incoming freshmen,” she said. “We’re all really excited about next year.

“I’m a little sad, a little bummed I didn’t make it to state this year because that was my goal. But I did the best I could do today and I feel like I left it all out there. I started out in a pretty good spot [top 25], but around 1.5 miles a group got around me and my legs really started to burn. But I did pass three girls in the last 800, including a girl from Loyola, so I felt pretty good about that. And I ran seven seconds better here than I did last year, so I definitely saw some improvement.”

Davis remains committed to competing for the Wildkit girls track team in the spring after playing soccer as a freshman. That’s the same path that Schuneman took, but the difference is that she’s not ready to drop soccer for track just yet.

“I ran cross-country in middle school [at Haven] and I just decided I wanted to take a year off from running,” she said, “but it really felt good to get back into the grind this year. I took the year off just because I wanted to focus on one sport.

“My goal was to break 20 minutes this year, and I broke 19, so I’m really happy with the way my season went. There’s a lot more mileage [in high school] and that was a lot to get used to. Today the first mile was a lot faster than I’m used to, about six flat, but that pushed me even more knowing I could run that fast.

“I’m super excited for next year. Hopefully we’re going to get more people involved and we’ll be even better.”

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  1. Congrats to ETHS on a great season. Also congrats to Loyola Academy on their 2nd place finish including scoring efforts by Evanston residents Jane Lynch and Ana Kimball! Good luck at State girls!

  2. Are the course distances the same for both girls and boys? Do they still run 5 k races? 3.1 miles?