In their history, Knox’s men’s and women’s cross country teams have never won a Midwest Conference (MWC) championship, but have had three MWC individual champions — Rose Nguyen, 1991, Annette Andresen, 1981, and Roscoe Pullen, 1932 — and one NCAA national qualifier, Brian Campbell in 1993.
More than likely, neither of this year’s teams will win the MWC — they have finished in last or close to it the last few seasons — but they do have a shot at having an MWC individual champion and maybe even a national qualifier or two.
Both teams are off to one of the best first halves that they have had since Patrick Irwin became their head coach in 2007.
“I thought it has been a great first half,” Irwin said. “I would go as far as to say probably one of the best we have had since I have been the head of the program.”
Both teams have started off well and have competed in three meets, but one has been healthier than the other.
“It’s been a little rough on the ladies side because of several injuries,” said junior Tanya Novotnak. Novotnak, along with sophomore Brenna DeGan, competed for the Prairie Fire for the first time this season in the Forester Invite held in Lake Forest, Ill. on Sept. 26.
“It’s huge having Tanya and Brenna back,” Irwin said. “Particularly with Tanya. She really put in a lot of work in the off-season and over the summer and had a freak injury towards the start of the season that slowed her down a little bit. Her race at Lake Forest showed she is still in top form and will really help out the strength of our team. With Brenna it’s the same thing. She has a lot of potential. She is still a young runner. If we can get her healthy and in shape we will have a pretty strong top five.”
In Lake Forest, Novotnak, a captain, had the top time for the Prairie Fire. She finished the 5K race in 20:56 for a 32nd place finish. It was a career best for her and was the first time she finished under 21 minutes. Also with a career best was senior Mary Purrazzo, the other captain, who finished the race in 24:55, which was the first time she has ran under 25 minutes.
On the men’s side in the Forester Invite, sophomore Kevin Box led the Prairie Fire. He finished 11th out of 118 runners. He completed the 8K in just 27:19. Senior Ryan Maniscalco, one of the team captains, came in second for the Prairie Fire. He completed the race in 27:36, taking 20th overall.
Irwin attributes the fast times displayed by both of his teams in Lake Forest to a number of things.
“I think it is consistency with training. It’s first and foremost a positive attitude and a desire to want to get better,” he said. “The chemistry has been fantastic this year, and I think everyone looks forward to coming to practice and working hard.
“I think it takes only one little bit of success, and that kind of carries over into wanting to continue to improve. So, I think it’s consistency, a positive attitude and just a commitment, a desire to push the limits and see how good they can be.”
Junior Chris Bugajski, the other men’s team captain, is elated with the team’s performance in Lake Forest and knows they can defeat other MWC foes. After all, they already have.
“We beat two conference schools, Illinois College and Lake Forest, and considering that we finished last in conference last year, it is a huge boost to say we beat them once,” said Bugajski about the Forester Invite. “We are going to be seeing Lake Forest this Friday at Benedictine in Lisle and then we see IC the week after at their meet in Jacksonville. So, I don’t see why we can’t beat them again.”
On Friday, the teams travel to Lisle, Ill. to compete in the Benedictine Eagle Invite and on Saturday, Oct. 17, they travel to Jacksonville, Ill. to run in the Illinois College Invite. The MWC Championships take place on Halloween in Beloit, Wis.
“I am excited for what’s to come and I think we are really going to surprise some teams come Oct. 31 when we head up to Beloit,” Irwin said.
Both Prairie Fire cross country teams know what they need to do to surprise their opponents and have successful second halves.
“Staying focused is the biggest thing. I think as a captain of the team, really making sure that everybody is on the same page with the goals that we set at the beginning of the season and at the same time just making it fun. … I am like the deacon of fun or something like that,” Bugajski said. “Having a good attitude and coming to practice everyday ready to run really helps out in terms of competing.”
Purrazzo did not deem herself a deacon of fun, but she has the same thoughts as Bugajski.
“Our main objective is to go out there and have fun,” she said. “Get everyone healthy and stay healthy. Keep working as a team — work together. The big thing is getting everyone on the same page. We are ready when it comes to race time. We go out there and work hard.”