University School senior Justin Iler took back his gold and led his Prepper harriers to a repeat state berth during the Division I region cross-country meet on Saturday at Boardman High School.
Iler won the title during his sophomore season, clocking a 15:48.96 to edge out Amherst Steele’s Josh Hill by 0.53 second in 2017, before finishing eighth as a junior in 16:46.17 with a month-long illness putting a damper on his preparations.
But he took back his title on Saturday in 15:47.00, besting St. Ignatius senior runner-up Steven Zucca, 15:54.34, Uniontown Lake junior Nathan Moore, 16:04.91, and the rest of the 196-runner field.
“It was really special,” Iler said. “I knew it was the final moment of my career here in Northeast Ohio. It was my second time winning it and my fourth time competing in it. And I knew going into it that it would be a tough battle between some guys, but, as the race unfolded, it became pretty clear how things would shape up in the end. I felt really good throughout, and I ended up taking it at the 2 1/2-mile marker.”
Cross-country is a sport of strategic moves and mental fortitude for each race, as finishing times don’t really mean all that much when course layouts, gradients and conditions are in a constant state of flux.
Considering all the variables, Iler said he was pleased with his time. Only five guys broke the 16-minute barrier at states last year, and they were all seniors.
“It ranked fairly high in my book,” he said. “A 15:47 with rainy and damp conditions, and then especially being at Boardman, that’s a tough course with all the turns. To put that into perspective, that would probably be sub-15:30 most anywhere else.”
Not to mention, Iler said he knew he had the victory in the bag with about 100 meters to go and turned off the jets some.
Overall, University School finished sixth in the team standings with 223 points – bested only by five programs ranked No. 11 or better in the state coaches poll – to secure a repeat state berth.
Also scoring for the Preppers, junior Griffin Walsh took 43rd in the team race in 17:03.07, sophomore Nate Miller finished 45th in 17:05.17, junior Ben LaFave was 54th in 17:10.30, and senior Cameron Monesmith finished 80th in 17:26.42, while seniors Graham Clark, 17:35.59, and Riley Steiner, 18:14.23, rounded out the varsity lineup.
The state No. 4-ranked Solon boys, meanwhile, scored 179 points to finish fourth and punch their first state berth as a team since winning the whole dang thing in 2016. The Comets missed out on the big dance by just two points last year and by just eight points the previous year.
Only the top seven teams made it out of the Division I Boardman Region the past two years, but eight teams advanced this year – go figure.
Leading Solon on Saturday, senior Matthew Costanzo finished 21st in the team race in 16:40.23.
“Since the past two years we didn’t make it by single digits, I think just getting over the hump at regionals is a big step forward for our program,” he said. “And I think our team is looking really good going into states now that we’ve got regionals behind us, because I think our group of guys will perform really well at states.”
Also scoring in the team race for the Comets at regionals, sophomore Ryan Goldfeder finished 27th in 16:50.22, senior Sam Young took 32nd in 16:56.30, junior Nathan Close was 49th in 17:07.74, and junior Jonny Ciccero finished 50th in 17:08.27, while freshman James Howell, 17:19.85, and senior Aden Pickus, 17:44.80, rounded out the varsity lineup.
Close, Goldfeder and Young were the only three Comets who had regional experience from a year ago, but that didn’t stop Costanzo and Ciccero from doing their parts.
“A couple of goals I set before this season was to help my team qualify for states, win conference and get a top-five finish at states,” Costanzo said. “So, I put myself in position by working really hard over the summer, and I had a good track season, so I just carried it over.”
Solon didn’t necessarily have a heavy-hitter up front – 14 of 24 teams in the field had a faster No. 1 runner – but the Comets made up for it with the tightest one-through-five pack in the race, both in time and in places, including the second-fastest fifth runner on the course.
Just 28.04 seconds separated Costanzo from Ciccero, and that’s why Solon hasn’t really had a true finishing order this season – any of its top five guys can lead the pack. During the previous week’s district race, Ciccero was the frontrunner.
“Our coach emphasized having a good pack,” Costanzo said of Matthew Wieczorek. “One of our mantras he wanted us to do for the meet was, ‘Our pack works.’ And basically he thinks that’s our greatest strength, is our close spread. So, when we have that, it’s very hard to beat us.
“And I didn’t think our guys did terrible finishing fourth, but I think we definitely could have done a lot better than we did, and I think we’ll be a lot better this next week at states.”
In the girls competition, meanwhile, Solon sophomores Ellie Radis and Jada Freeman locked up individual state berths with top-32 finishes in a 189-runner field.
Radis finished 17th in 19:26.90, and Freeman took 23rd in 19:35.25. It took a 19:50.52 to get out of the region this year.
“I knew my race at regionals was pretty bad last year, so it just shows all my improvement and how far my hard work and dedication got me this year,” Radis said. “So, I’m really happy with the end result and seeing that growth from last year.”
Clocking 21:45.68 and 21:55.54, respectively, in 2018, Radis and Freeman both moved up more than 100 places in their individual finishes from freshman year.
“I ran at Boardman before regionals last year and didn’t have a good race, so I think I just had a really bad mindset going into regionals,” Radis said. “And I feel the more positive you are, the better your race is. So, I feel like, going into it this year, I had a better outlook on it, and that definitely helped.”
Freeman also said a year of experience under her cleats made all the difference.
“I think it’s really exciting,” she said. “It was great that I had the confidence to push myself more this year to make it to the state meet with my teammate Ellie. And I felt really good (at Boardman). I didn’t really have a strategy, but, once I hit the last 800 (meters), I actually started to go, and it ended up working for me.”
Punching their tickets to the big dance, Radis and Freeman continue the streak of 10 straight years that the Solon girls have sent at least one individual to the state meet. Four-time all-Ohioan Olivia Howell was the lone Lady Comet the past three seasons.
“I felt like we did a really good job stepping up this year,” Freeman said. “Last year, it was so muddy, and people kept saying, ‘It’s such a bad course, it’s such a bad course,’ but this year, I was really excited, the weather was really nice, and I just went out there. I trusted my training and all the long runs I did in my workouts, and I trusted my coaches, and they really prepared me.”
The state competition will be held this Saturday at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron.