By Kyle Daubs

Will Mount Zion repeat as champions?

Can Mahomet-Seymour get over the hump?

These questions headline what appears to be an exciting Apollo Conference girls cross country season. 

Both Mt. Zion and Mahomet-Seymour bring back their top five runners from last year. Mt. Zion claimed the title by a narrow 14-point edge over the Bulldogs and has reloaded with stellar runners from the track season. 

Ashleigh Anderson returns as a senior fully healthy. Despite battling injuries last year, Anderson finished 11th and missed All-Apollo by just 6 seconds. Sophomore Renee Ballard leads the charge after finishing fifth as a freshman but has been rehabbing an injury she sustained earlier in the year. Senior Emma Mallory was sixth. Sophomore Hailey Betzer placed ninth for what should be an exciting Braves squad this season. 

“I’m excited about our upcoming season,” said Mt. Zion coach Kelly Fox. “We have kept our top five from last season and added a sophomore (Camille Mavis) and a healthy junior (Sofia Munoz) that will elevate our team. Camille ran track for me last year and was on our 4 x 800-meter team (personal best 2:32) that competed and placed at the State meet.  Camille ran cross country in junior high but hesitated to go out last year with Covid, the fear of 3 miles, etc.  She’s been running well in practices.”

Munoz is fully healthy after a sophomore season that featured some health scares. As a freshman, Munoz was ninth and All-Apollo. 

“I’m also excited to have Sofia back running healthy,” said Fox. “She struggled last year, after a stellar freshman year, and it wasn’t until February during track season that we learned her ferritin and iron were very low.  Sofia’s parents both work in the medical field and were able to help her find the supplements and proper diet and she was a completely different athlete by the end of March.  She had a fantastic  track season and also ran on our 4×800 team with a personal best time of 2:26.”

Despite the solid top-7 displayed by the Braves, Fox still believes that Mahomet-Seymour is a serious threat to taking the Apollo title. 

“Our team should be better than last year as long as I can keep them healthy,” said Fox. “We may have won the conference, but Mahomet had some girls out with injuries at the conference meet but those girls came back and ran very strong at the Sectional.”

The Bulldogs return two All-Apollo runners in Elizabeth Sims (3rd) and Klein Powell (8th), as well as six of their top seven runners. Sophomore Ava Boyd placed 12th last year and could compete for a top-10 spot. 

“We look forward to racing some Apollo Conference teams at Charleston to get an indication of where we stack up in the Apollo Conference,” said Mahomet-Seymour coach Jama Grotelueschen. “Mt. Zion is always tough, and I know Lincoln had some great runners last year.”

Lincoln placed fourth as a team last year and boasts the leading contender for the individual title in sophomore Becca Heitzig. Last year, Heitzig ran a personal best 18 minutes, 3 seconds and will look to compete for an All-State finish by the end of the season. 

“We graduated two seniors who were great leaders, Abby Steifvater and Caroline Ahrends.   They had a great impact on the team over the last couple of years,” said Lincoln coach Andrew Hite. “Becca Heitzig had a fantastic season last year.  She was All-Conference and performed well at regionals and sectionals.  We look forward to seeing here accomplish more this year. We will be competitive at the conference.  There are some good teams, so I can’t say who will be at the top.”

Charleston placed third last year but lost two key pieces to their success in Megan Garrett (4th) and Grace Spoonhour (9th). Both were “unofficial” state qualifiers. Junior Ila Richter joined both at the state meet, but has been rehabbing an injury from the offseason, making it unlikely she will be completely recovered once the season starts. 

Freshman Hadley Webb won her sectional as an eighth-grader and could stand out right away. The Trojans return their Nos. 3-4-5 runners, as well as six out of the top nine, so head coach Chris Hawk would like to see the team compete for a top-five spot. 

“I expect us to be squarely in the middle of the conference this year.,” said Hawk. “We have added a few freshmen that could make significant contributions as well.  Unfortunately, we have three of our top runners returning from serious injuries and conditions that have held them out for a significant amount of time.  How quickly and how fully they bounce back will largely determine how far we can go this year.”

Mattoon placed sixth last year and lost its top two runners. Apollo runner-up Kylie Haacke is now running at EIU, while Ashley Jobe returned to volleyball. With just one upperclassman in Kaylin Richey, this will be one of the youngest teams coached by head coach Troy Haacke. 

Sophomores Oakley Layton and Hallee Perry ran varsity last year and will be the top returning runners. New to the lineup could also feature sophomore Bella Smith and a slew of freshmen. 

“Oakley Layton and Hallee Perry are both sophomores and both have improved so much,” said Haacke. “They have been pushing each other in practice and we are excited for what they will accomplish this year.  All the girls are working hard, adjusting to high school workouts and I believe we will see big improvement through the season.”

Predicted Apollo Rankings

1. Mt. Zion

2. Mahomet-Seymour

3. Lincoln

4. Charleston

5. Mattoon

6. Taylorville

7. Effingham

Top Apollo Runners to Watch

1. Becca Heitzig – Lincoln

2. Elizabeth Sims – Mahomet-Seymour

3. Ashleigh Anderson – Mt. Zion

4. Emma Mallory – Mt. Zion

5. Reese McCuan – Lincoln

6. Klein Powell – Mahomet-Seymour

7. Hailey Betzer – Mt. Zion

8. Sophia Munoz – Mt. Zion

9. Hadley Webb – Charleston

10. Ava Boyd – Mahomet-Seymour