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Preparatory cross | Comer, Genisio post wins, personal bests at Benton Sectional

BENTON — As before. Yes, as it was….

Despite some serious challenges from opposing runners, last year’s Class 1A cross country champions at Benton are also this year’s champions.

Pope County junior Ari Comer and Benton junior Gavin Genicio both claimed medalist honors Saturday.

Comer won her race in a personal best time of 16 minutes, 56 seconds. She was 10 seconds off the course record set in 2019 by Amelia McLain of Benton (16:46).

Genesio broke his own course record with a time of 13 minutes, 47.9 seconds, about 18 seconds faster than the 2021 time. Not surprisingly, one of the area’s other standout runners — Pinckneyville’s Isaac Thiel — also bettered Genesio’s mark last year, finishing second overall in 13:54.

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Comer won by 12 seconds over runner-up Caitlin Hatley of Father McGivney School in Glen Carbon (17:08), whose sprint to the finish was caught by Carterville’s Molly Robertson (third overall, 17:09).

Mia Gilmore of Murphysboro was fourth (17:13). Brody Denny of Anna-Jonesboro was fifth (17:17).

Rounding out the top 10: Belleville-Altaph’s Eris Nelson (17:27); Pinckneyville’s Vanessa Thiel (5:40 p.m.); Okawville’s Caroline Tepe (17:59); Goreville’s Molly Merrill (18:09); and Isabella Hacker of Breese Mater Dei (18:12).

“I’m always nervous before races,” Comer said. “I started fast because I knew I was going to have a lot of competition today. It just so happened that I felt really good and was able to keep a faster pace.”

Comer said she relied on her training to carry her through the race.

“I was just trying to go as fast as I could — really push myself, especially on the downhill run,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure on me and I don’t want to let anyone down, but I still wanted to show that I’m still the fastest runner.”

Looking ahead to next Saturday’s state finals at Detweiler Park in Peoria, Comer, who finished seventh a year ago at state, said she will be ready.

“A state win would be amazing,” she said. “I want to get there early enough to get noticed by more colleges. I’m looking forward to the competition. I’ve beaten almost everyone ranked ahead of me across the state.”

Pope County head coach James Fortman said Comer just continues to surprise him with her performances.

“It’s been a long year for Ari and she’s been training really hard,” he said. “She’s putting a lot of pressure on herself. I think she’s at a level now where she’s ready to go to state. She’s just getting better and better.”

Fortman said Comer relinquished the lead in Saturday’s race during the second mile, but that was planned.

“We wanted her to lay back a little bit and let them lead for a while, but I think she got tired of them leading, so she took it and flew. She is just a special athlete and a special person. And I think she will enjoy the season.”

Those girls teams qualifying for state next Saturday include: Anna-Jonesboro, Breeze Mater Dei. Carterville, Father McGivney, Pinckneyville and Freeburg.

It was AJ’s first sectional title at school.

“The No. 1 goal was to win the conference. The No. 2 goal was to win the regional and the No. 3 goal was to win the sectional,” Wildcats head coach Matt Denney said. “We were a bit knocked down last week but Brodie (Danny) bounced back today and it was good.

“And the rest of the girls were doing what they’ve been doing all year,” Danny said. “One finished without a shoe. A couple of them fell in the forest, but then we got up and continued moving. It was a good race.

“We didn’t talk much about winning today,” Danny said. “I just let them relax. They know what they’re doing. It’s been a good year. Hopefully it’s the start of some good years.”

Those 10 individuals who are not members of any of those six teams that qualified for state are: Comer, Murphysboro’s Gilmore, Belleville-Altaph’s Nelson; Tepe of Akowville; Merrill of Hareville; Roxana’s Riley Doyle (12th at 18:27), Roxana’s Gabrielle Woodruff (15th at 18:33), Du Quoin’s Maggie Kellerman (17th at 18:40), Columbia’s Madison Missy (19- me at 6:44 p.m.) and Sarah McCowan of Christ Our Rock Lutheran in Centralia (20th at 6:47 p.m.).

Genesio thought about his team more than his personal achievements.

“The whole team performed absolutely brilliantly today,” he said. “I’m so proud of the program we’ve put together. We are trying to become a cross country school and we are going to try to win the state championship next week. As for me, I’m not going to lie. I felt great today. To win and break my record at the distance … it couldn’t have been better.”

The junior said the game plan was to stay with Thiel and then take advantage of his strong kick to win the race in the final 300-400 meters.

“I know the track very well and wanted to start my game on the baseball fields. The goal is to get better and better each week. I’m really excited about our chances next week. We’re definitely a trophy team.”

Rangers head coach Brent McLain was impressed with the matchup between Genesio and Teal.

“It was a great race. It was the best race of Gavin’s life. You know, we’re rooting for every Southern Illinois kid, whether it’s Gavin or Isaac or whoever down the road,” he said. “Southern Illinois is kind of overlooked by the north, but we’re going to make a statement next weekend at the state convention.”

Thiel was exhausted by the race.

“I gave everything I had,” the Panther senior said. “It’s been a tough month for me. I’ve only been able to practice about four times (due to sore legs and illness). I’m just trying to stay as healthy as possible.”

Thiel said he and Genesio seem to bring out the best in each other and hope to win a big state race next week.

“I’m just going to go all out and see what I can do – make sure I don’t have anything left in the side like I did today,” he said.

Benton’s Gabriel McLain was third in 14:22 behind Henicio and Thiel. Columbia’s Ethan Hogan was fourth in 14:51. Benton’s Cole Buchanan was fifth in 15:08.

Rounding out the top 10: Okawville’s Grant Shleifer (15:15); Columbia’s Calvin Range (15:29); Pope County’s Eason Kamer (3:30 p.m.); Carmi-White County’s Tanner Spence (15:31); and Massac County’s Jaydon Miller (15:34).

Those six boys teams that advanced to the state meet were: Benton, Pinckneyville, Freeburg, Anna-Jonesboro, Father McGivney and Metro East Lutheran of Edwardsville.

Those 10 all-state standouts who are not members of these teams are: Columbia’s Hogan, Oakville’s Shleifer, Columbia’s Range, Pope County’s Comer, Carmi’s Spence, Massac County’s Miller, Steelville’s Kayton Kretch, Steeleville’s Jason Dalby of Webber Township, Elijah Gregory of Christ Our Rock Lutheran, Nathaniel Marlow of Webber Township and Luke Winkleman of Harrisburg.


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