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By ANDREW ROSTEN
For the Paxton Record
PAXTON — As practice started at Pells Park on Monday, it marked the beginning of a familiar journey for Paxton-Buckey-Loda Junior High School’s boys’ cross country team.
If the past decade is any indication, the journey should end at the state level. Since 1999, PBL has sent its team to the state tournament. Over the past 10 years, the Panthers have achieved a top-four finish, including the 2003 state championship and runner-up finishes in 2004 and last year.
“We were highly competitive,” PBL coach Mike Brehm said. “We’ve got a pretty long streak. We’ve been there and made some noise every year. We’ve brought home five state trophies, so that’s pretty good.”
This year, PBL will face an Illinois Elementary School Association-induced obstacle. Due to a growth in junior high cross-country programs, from around 180 to about 250 schools, parks such as Maxwell Park in Normal, which hosted last year’s state tournament, could no longer accommodate all teams with a two-class division.
Therefore, the IESA has switched to a three-class system.
“The competition will be compressed, and that will make it a little bit more difficult, but I think our kids will rise to the occasion,” Brehm said. “We’ll just see how the chips fall on that.”
The squad should get plenty of help, however, in overcoming the obstacle.
Thanks in part to the recruiting efforts at the school of assistant coach Rob Pacey, PBL should expect about 50-60 kids on its roster.
“We’re always out in the hallways looking for kids,” Brehm said. “We’ll have another large squad. We expect 50 to 60 kids again this year. For a school our size, that’s pretty good. Not everybody can say that. We pride ourselves in getting as many kids out as we can. It keeps them out of trouble.”
Among the key returnees to the squad are Cole Eshleman and Matt Harper. Both runners return as eighth-graders and defending state tournament participants.
Eshleman won all-state honors last year.
“They’re two returnees who ran extremely well towards the end of the year last year,” Brehm said. “We expect some good things from them.”
PBL also should get key contributions from other returnees such as Kody Harrison and Josh Glover. “We’ve got a couple of other kids there that will grow,” Brehm said. “Kids get bigger, faster and stronger as they mature. Sixth-graders become seventh-graders. Seventh-graders become eighth-graders. They’re just naturally going to get bigger, faster, stronger and more and more conditioned. You just see their bodies change. We’ve been fortunate for that trend to continue. We’ll be competitive, that’s for sure. We’ve never not been competitive.”
PBL’s girls’ cross country team comes in with some unfinished business, finishing fourth in sectionals last year. PBL finished one spot, and 10 points, short of advancing to the state tournament.
“Our girls team has the potential to do some good things (this year),” Brehm said. “We’ll just see how they work and what their attitude towards everything.”
Female volunteer assistant Becky Kasten joins PBL’s girls cross country squad, which Brehm said could help with the girls’ development.
“I think having her there on a regular basis will really help guide the girls,” Brehm said. “I understand the guys’ mental preparation and how they think, but I don’t totally understand how the girls think. Hopefully, Becky can give me some insight and help the girls along.”
Departed to high school are PBL’s two state individual qualifiers from last year: Kylie Mercer and Audrey Bloomquist.
This year’s eighth-grade class, led by Mackenzie Schroeder and Shannon Carlson, will be depended upon this year to fill PBL’s leadership role.
“I’m looking at a couple of our eighth graders to really shine,” Brehm said. “One of them would be Mackenzie Schroeder. She could do some things for us. The returnees should shine in the beginning. We’ll see how our eighth-grade leadership goes. As the eighth graders go with leadership, typically so goes the team. That holds true in almost any sport.”
Jasmine Evans and seventh-graders Liberty Jamison and Alicia Montenegro should be counted on to contribute, as well.