When it comes to cross country, in many ways, it’s all about being healthy at the end of the season.
Fans got a taste of what the Western Big Six race — which takes place on the same Saukie Golf Course, Oct. 13 — might look like at the Rock Island Invite two weeks ago.
On Sept. 22, Alleman’s Augie Darrow took first place overall with a 15:47.5 on the three-mile course at Saukie. He not only took first but his closest competitor from the Western Big Six was his teammate, Spencer Smith, who took fourth, about 23 seconds behind him. Also finishing in the top 10 that day were Moline junior Andrew Ellison in fifth followed by Rock Island’s Terrell Robinson in sixth, Alleman junior Ben Weaver in eighth and his junior teammate, Brendan Hird, in 10th.
On that day, Darrow liked the Pioneers' chances in the Big Six, in many ways because of their depth. But that depth is not what it used to be. Weaver is out for next week’s meet with a stress fracture in his femur.
“It really is a setback,” said Alleman coach Scott Stoll. “Our first and second runners (Spencer Smith and Darrow) are very strong.” He also likes his Nos. 4, 5, and 6. “Ben was our No. 3 runner and the link to our 4, 5 and 6.”
“Even with him in there, it would have been close as nails,” said UT coach Chris Wallaert, whose team did not compete at the RI Invite. “We both have gone through injury problems.”
One thing both he and Stoll agree on is you can’t count out Moline.
“Moline is not a team to sleep on,” Wallaert said. “They may not have a front runner, but they are good.”
On the girls side, Rock Island appears to be the clear-cut favorite. Rock Island sophomore Dulce Perez took second at her school’s invite and led the Rocks to the team title two weeks ago. The Rocks' Jayla Hathorn finished third.
“I know they are young, but they have been running tough all year,” said United township coach Damon Bautista. “They definitely have to be the favorite.”
Here is a look at each of the local Big Six boys and girls cross country teams:
The Panthers have been hit by some odd injuries during the season, losing their top runner, Dalton Martin, to a tailbone injury suffered when a chair was pulled out from under him at school. Last year’s state qualifier has been eased back into things.
“We ran him last week, and he ran pretty well," Wallaert said. “He is our top guy again. We are fortunate he’s back.”
Also coming back after a unique non-running injury is the Panthers’ Sawyer Swearingen, who got his fingers caught in a garage door while putting away archery equipment after a physical education class.
“He’s running,” Wallaert said Tuesday night. “Fortunately, it’s not running related issues, and we should have everybody at full strength.”
Other Panthers to keep an eye on at the Big Six is Trevor Viren, a senior, who Wallaert says has been as consistent as anyone, and freshman James Wright, who has been a solid performer for UT.
The Panther girls are led by freshman Brinley Rodgers and junior Ricar Mends, said coach Damon Bautista.
“We have five of our top seven who are freshmen or sophomores. We are trying to get better each day and hopefully we just improve from last year at the conference meet (sixth). We are trending upwards with our performances. That’s a good sign.”
The Maroons are led by juniors Ellison, Ryan Lodico and Alex Klum, senior Logan Paulley and sophomore Nikola Stojanovic. “We have a pack of guys who have really run well of late,” said Moline coach Tauwon Taylor.
The Moline girls’ top runner is Alexis Wolf, who finished sixth in Rock Island. She was coming off a bit of an injury that day, Taylor said back then, “but I expect her to be up towards the front at the end of the season.”
Another Maroon to keep an eye is Annie Knowbloch, a senior who took 19th at Rock Island and possibly sophomore Emme Schwabe, a sophomore who took 20th in what Taylor calls a rebuilding year.
Darrow is his “steady Eddie,” Stoll said. “He’s never had a bad race. The key to his success is he knows how to balance out his effort during the week so he’s right where he needs to be on a race day.”
Spencer Smith could also vie for the individual boys conference title, according to Stoll and several coaches. Brendan Hird, Connor Shelley and Aaron Michelson round out the Pioneer effort.
The Pioneers girls are led by junior Addie Pulley. “She’s capable of running with the lead runners,” Stoll said.
Sophomore Anna Darrow also cracked the top 10 in Rock Island. “We are doing some good workouts,” Stoll said. “All’s we have to do is translate that to race day.”
Boys coach Joe Lopez liked the positive steps he saw from senior Terrell Robinson, who finished eight at the invite, and freshman Logan Conner, who took 13th. “We are a work in progress,” Lopez said. “We are very thin.”
For the girls, besides Perez and Hathorn, Jade Ford (eighth) and Kayla Canning (ninth) also made the top 10 at the invite in a strong field that included Davenport schools, Central, Assumption and West.
Off from school next week since they are a “year-round” school, the Rocks travel to Walt Disney World Classic early next week, where Rock Island girls coach Tony VanDeWalle hopes the Rocks might improve on a fourth-place finish from last year. They get off the plane and compete in the Big Six the next day.
“We put it all together,” VanDeWalle said of the effort at their own invite.
He thinks Alleman, Moline and Galesburg could challenge his team.
“Everybody gets over their injuries, and it seems at the Big Six, they all come together.”