Suburban Life Boys Cross Country Athlete of the Year: Aden Bandukwala became Hinsdale Central’s first state champion

Hinsdale Central's Aden Bandukwala (second from left, green shoes) is the Suburban Life boys cross country Athlete of the Year.

After coming close to Class 3A boys cross country All-State honors in 2021, Hinsdale Central junior Aden Bandukwala usually was close to the front this season.

His top-four finishes in five major 3.0-mile races often were near or next to senior teammate and Oregon recruit Dan Watcke.

“[Winning races] is not something we talk about with the kids like Dan or Aden so much,” Hinsdale Central coach Jim Westphal said. “We just talk about putting yourself in the position, and if you’re in a good position and you’re there, race to win.”

In his final race this season, Bandukwala used that strategy and won a neck-and-neck battle by .31 of a second for his first victory since freshman year on the sophomore level. The race happened to be the 3A state finals Nov. 5 at a wet and muddy Detweiller Park in Peoria.

For his accomplishments, Bandukwala is the 2022 Suburban Life Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.

“I didn’t really think I was going to win it, but I knew I had a shot at being in the top three and when you have a shot of being in the top three, you always have a shot at winning it,” Bandukwala said. “[I’ll remember being] around that finish area and just getting mobbed by everyone, teammates and family. That was awesome. They all swarmed me after the race. It was fun.”

Bandukwala edged Oak Park-River Forest senior Liam Newhart down the long, final straightaway (14:46.15 to 14:46.46) to become the first state champion in Hinsdale Central/Hinsdale program history. Watcke (14:56.22) finished third. They are the highest state finishes in program history, surpassing Blake Evertsen’s fourth place in 2015.

In 2021, Bandukwala was 29th (15:00.13), 4.97 seconds from 25th and All-State. This time, Bandukwala moved into the lead with about 1,000 meters left until Newhart caught him with 200 meters left and briefly led.

“It’s something really cool [being our first champion] that it’s been so many years we’ve been running and we’ve won it twice,” Bandukwala said. “There’s so much luck that goes into every race. I’d been so close [to first] and I figured Liam and Dan are two of the best runners. I was close to them at conference [placing third]. I could get lucky at state.”

The Red Devils (89 points) finished second in 3A for the second straight year, just one point behind Plainfield South (88). The Red Devils’ only other top-three state trophies are their 2013 and 2014 3A state championships. Hinsdale Central runners quickly reversed any disappointment Nov. 13. They won the Nike Cross Nationals Midwest Regional title in Terre Haute, Indiana, 123-145 over the Plainfield South runners. Both teams automatically qualified for the national finals Dec. 3 in Portland, Oregon.

“That was probably one of the most gratifying, one of the happiest moments of my life. I’d say that NXR was better [than state] because of the team [winning],” Bandukwala said.

Bandukwala credits his team, and more specifically Watcke and senior Michael Skora (26th at state), with making him a more dedicated and elite runner. As a freshman, Bandukwala began tapping his potential in track and field on the Red Devils’ 2021 3A state championship 1,600-meter relay with Watcke and then-seniors Piyush Mekla and Isa Hitchens.

“[Bandukwala would] be the first to tell you. He gives Dan especially and Michael Skora a ton of credit for being great teammates and demonstrating hard work and focus,” Westphal said.

“I’m definitely not winning [state] without them. I run every workout with them,” Bandukwala said. “It’s also easier having two people that are always like that, and Dan’s always taking the heat [in races], doing it all for us. It’s good having a team up there. You never lose the motivation.”

Next season, Bandukwala can join Watcke (14th in 2021) and become the Red Devils’ fourth multiple all-stater. No one has multiple top-10 state finishes.

“I think whether Aden won or Dan won [state], they’d be truly happy for each other and supportive so that’s the really cool thing,” Westphal said. “As much as they want to win, they’re still rooting for each other. We’re very lucky to work with great athletes but more importantly great kids.”

Suburban Life boys cross country All-Area team

Finn Richards, sophomore, Benet; Ryan Eddington, junior, Downers Grove North; Topher Ferris, senior, Downers Grove North; Asa Gaspar, senior, Downers Grove North; Caden Weber, junior, Downers Grove North; Carter Smott, senior, Downers Grove South; Nate McKillop, junior, Fenwick; Aden Bandukwala, junior, Hinsdale Central; Jesse Gamboa, senior, Hinsdale Central; Michael Skora, senior, Hinsdale Central; Dan Watcke, senior, Hinsdale Central; Aidan Collins, senior, Lyons Township; Cillian Henning, junior, Lyons Township; Nick Strayer, junior, Lyons Township; Cooper Marrs, junior, Riverside-Brookfield; Jack O’Brien, junior, Riverside-Brookfield; Caleb Youngstedt, senior, Wheaton North; Sam Cruz, senior, Wheaton Warrenville South; Nathan Virginelli, senior, Wheaton Warrenville South; Aidan Hill, senior, York.