Cross country: Lemont’s Niki Tselios wins hilly 2A Geneseo Sectional

Lemont's Niki Tselios

GENESEO – Perhaps it was destined for Niki Tselios to win the 2A cross country sectional Saturday morning. The three-mile course around Richmond Hill Park puts the emphasis on hill, with about 70 feet of elevation change from the start to the highest point on the course.

The layout takes the runners up and down twice before the finish line. That 280 feet of climbing and descending can take a toll on the uninitiated, but Tselios is from Lemont, the town built on the steep slope leading to the Des Plaines River. For the junior who might run a dozen miles a day, this was a breeze.

“I train on a lot of hills,” said Tselios, a cousin of Blackhawks great Chris Chelios. “It’s going down these hills that are hard. I tell my coach I don’t want to break my ankles. It was on the flat areas that I pushed it.”

She still had to deal with Claire Blotnik of Joliet Catholic Academy, the favorite in the race. Blotnik led for over two miles before Tselios passed her on a turn at the bottom of the course, about three-quarters of a mile from the finish, and went on to win in 18:47.0, beating Blotnik by 13.4 seconds.

“In the beginning I was boxed in, and I was getting really mad,” Tselios said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to pass these girls really fast.’ Then we hit that section and I saw she was tiring out. I sped up and kept going.”

Both Tselios and Blotnik had won their conference meet. Tselios won her regional last week at Thornridge, while Blotnik was second in hers at Metamora. This budding rivalry will reach its high-school climax next week at Detweiller Park. Blotnik, a senior, made a mental note of the pass and not being able to pass in return.

“Your brain starts going crazy a little bit to try and hold on to her,” Blotnik said. “I let it go in the end, but tried my best to stay in front of the pack behind me. When we pulled in, it was, ‘We have to run up five different hills.’ But once you get to the starting line, it’s do what you can.”

Lemont took seventh place, the last qualifying spot for a team. Blotnik was the only Angel to qualify, as JCA's girls finished ninth as a team.

Washington led the girls team standings, with Morris fourth — paced by freshman Makensi Martin, whose 19:03 was good for fifth.

"I just focus on getting the person in front of me and moving forward," Martin said. "I was expecting it to be hard. Uphill was hard, but downhill made up for it."

The boys race was expected to be a rout, and Sterling senior Dale Johnson made sure it was, finishing in 15:11, stunning considering the mountainous nature of the course. He beat pal Dylan Gehl of Geneseo by 24.4 seconds.

"You take control from the very beginning," Johnson said. "You don't try to pace people. The hills change a lot, but that change was welcome."

"It puts you in your place and shows you've got to get better," Gehl said. "There's a whole different ceiling if you do as many workouts as he does."

Morris was the lone area boys team to qualify, finishing sixth. Freshman Cuyler Swanson was the lead for Morris, taking seventh in 15:52.9.

"I tried to maintain my pace and go out a little slower than normal," Swanson said. "It worked all right."

Richmond Hill Park is Geneseo's usual course, but not everybody was thrilled with it as a sectional site.

"It's horrible," said Joliet Catholic's Nathan Ciarlette, who nonetheless finished 16th in 16:16.6 and was the lone Hilltopper to make it downstate for the first time. The senior was on track to do so last year before illness derailed his sectional appearance.

Lemont's Jack Davey (15th, 16:13.2) also qualified, and didn't mind the hills at all.

“I’d definitely say it was an advantage,” said Davey, who fought through a hip flexor injury to advance. “My legs were a bit weak. I was keeping the mind happy and fighting through.”