Boys’ Cross Country ends ’22 season with success

It was a rainy, windy day on Nov. 5, and the cross country course at Peoria’s Detweiller Park was raked with mud. Senior Liam Newhart was barely behind the first place Hinsdale Central runner. 

In the end, Newhart ran a 14:46 (14 minutes, 46 seconds) to come in second in the Illinois High School Association State Cross Country Championships. He was agonizingly close to first-place finisher Aden Bandukwala, who beat him by just 31 hundredths of a second. 

Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Boys Cross Country team made it to state for the 19th time this year, placing fifth out of 28 teams. This has been their best season since 1980, when they placed fourth overall. 

“We had a really really successful season,” Head Coach Christopher Baldwin said. “Early on I knew it was going to be amazing.” 

But at the very beginning, the team faced some tough obstacles. The season started off rocky with absences, sicknesses and a few bad meets, yet they quickly bounced back. “We were able to pivot ourselves from those tough losses,” Baldwin said. 

Daniel Johnson, a varsity runner, spoke highly of his team’s progression, especially in the postseason. “The team we are right now is nothing like the team we were at the beginning of the season,” he said. 

The encouraging, collaborative and consistent approach made the difference, according to Baldwin. “We are big on growth mindset and…working hard, training hard and running hard,” he said. 

During the 2021 OPRF cross country season, the team did not make it past sectionals. This year, the runners competed at an entire new level with their entire varsity squad capable of running three miles in under 16 minutes.

In an exciting season, a few races stood out.

The team placed second Oct. 15 in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division against Hinsdale Central, Glenbard West, Lyons Township, York and Downers Grove North. “These are schools that really care about the sport of cross country and it’s a part of the culture there,” said Owen Augustine, a varsity runner for OPRF since his freshman year. “So to have all those big teams with that mindset, it’s a pretty special feeling.” 

On Oct. 29, the cross country boys ran at sectionals and qualified for state, Newhart coming first and earning the title of champion. Newhart was also only 2 seconds off of the course’s record. 

With the state race coming up on Nov. 5, the boys had a lot of mental preparation to do. Roger Carstens, who headed down to Peoria with the rest of the runners, shared his enthusiasm for the upcoming meet. “This is where you run your fast time,” he said. “It’s like the moment you see the course you’re ready to battle for your teammates today.” 

At the state meet, OPRF had seven runners, Liam Newhart placing second, Michael Michelotti placing 36th, Nick Parrell placing 40th, Owen Augustine placing 102nd, Lewis O’Connor placing 111th, Daniel Johnson placing 148th and Andrew Harmon placing 207th. 

The culture and climate set in place by both the coach and athletes is what has allowed such a victorious season, according to Baldwin. “It’s more than just being a fast runner,” he said. “It’s about feeling that sense of community and place that kids feel connected to.”

Carstens agreed. “It’s crazy. If you would’ve told me we would’ve gotten fifth in state, I wouldn’t believe you,” he said. “I’m super proud of my teammates for their hard work and dedication they put into the program.”

Smiling with his teammates, he added, “I don’t know how many people can say they have friends who they’ve run over 1,000 miles with.”