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Maine South girls cross country team trying to build on record season

10/20/12      Skokie

Maine South runners Mirae Mastrolonardo (473), Gina Johnson (399) and Cailin Eckhart (397) during the IHSA regional cross country meet at Harms Woods in Skokie on Saturday, Oct. 20. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Skokie Saturday 10-27-12
Maine South's #168 Emily Leonard places eighth in the girl's sectional cross country race at Niles West HS in Skokie Saturday afternoon.  | Kevin Tanaka for~Sun-Times Media.

With senior Emily Leonard, a three-time all-state runner, leading the way, the Maine South girls cross country team looks ready for another strong season.

The Hawks’ level of success could be determined in large part by their depth, according to Leonard.

“I think it comes down to the Nos. 6 and 7 (runners),” Leonard said. “If we have a good 6 and 7, we should have a really good pack to qualify for state and better what we did last year.”

The Hawks are coming off the best season in program history following a 10th-place finish at the Class 3A state meet last year. Leonard paced the team, finishing ninth while Megan Lemersal, a two-time all-stater, finished 53rd.

While replacing the graduated Lemersal will be difficult, coach Jeff Downing is expecting a strong returning group to step up.

“We have a lot of talent returning,” said Downing, entering his sixth season. “It’s hard not to be encouraged. The question is where our No. 5 runner is, but we have many different options.”

Among them are sophomores Olivia Ryan and Julia Sirvinskas.

Downing is looking for another good season from sophomore Gina Johnson, who had a strong campaign as a freshman. Johnson, who doesn’t train with Maine South during the summer because of her focus on draft-legal youth elite triathlons, took 114th at state.

“I think she’s going to step up,” Leonard said. “And I hope she’ll end up being a big help to the team. I think she can.”

Training for triathlons requires a different mind-set than preparing for cross country: She focuses on speed when prepping for the 1.5-mile run in triathlons while she builds up endurance during cross country practices. Johnson said her overall fitness is at a good level and that it shouldn’t take long for her to reach the necessary base for cross country.

“While I wasn’t running any more than 20 miles a week (during triathlon training), the swimming and biking helps with my fitness,” said Johnson, who averages 25 miles per week during cross country season. “Plus I think I’m just better prepared overall knowing the program.”

While Johnson completed her summer triathlon season over the weekend, Leonard spent part of her summer leading the core group of varsity runners from last year at a University of Wisconsin cross country camp.

For Leonard, the time at camp was also key as she works to getting her condition back following a shin injury at the end of last year’s track season and a summer Achilles’ injury.

“Now that I’m running again and building my base up, I feel like my base is even faster than it was last year,” said Leonard, who is looking for a sub-16 minute, 50 second race time this year. “I think this team might be even better than it was last year.”

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