For now, the Apollo Conference title is Mount Zion’s to lose.
Last year, the Braves beat Mahomet-Seymour by a point, 38-39, to take the title.
However, the Bulldogs will need to seriously reload their backend of the lineup to push Mount Zion off of the top. While the Bulldogs returned their top three runners, the team lost four seniors that were their fourth through seventh best runners. Meanwhile, the Braves return five of their top seven runners, who all placed in the top 14.
Mount Zion will be led by senior Sofia Munoz, who was the Apollo Conference runner-up last season. Also back is junior Renee Ballard, who finished seventh last season. The team also returns juniors Camille Mavis, Brooke Doyle, and Hailey Betzer, who placed 12th, 13th, and 14th.
Despite all of the depth returning, the team did lose two All-Apollo runners in Emma Mallory and Ashleigh Anderson. With Mahomet-Seymour always having a solid junior high program, head coach Kelly Fox is not ready to give Mount Zion the title of favorite just this year.
“I’m curious who Lincoln will add,” said Fox. “They have a solid top three. Mahomet always goes deep in their lineup. For our team, if I can get a couple of girls healthy and convince one that she should remain running on the team, we can be up there.”
Munoz finished second with a time of 19:09.3 but everyone in the Apollo believes that Lincoln’s Becca Heitzig is the returning favorite to win the title again. Heitzig blew away the competition by running 18:04.9 at the Apollo meet. After Heitzig, the dropoff for Lincoln could be vast. The team lost Reese McCuan, who finished 11th last season and the next fastest runner running in the 22s.
“Becca Heitzig from Lincoln is incredible,” said Mahomet-Seymour coach Jama Grotelueschen. “Sofia Munoz had a great track season and should be tough as well. Our own Ava Boyd has worked extremely hard in the off-season and is determined to make this season her best yet.”
Even with Heitzig placing first, Lincoln placed third with 100 points last season, which is why there will be eyes on both the Braves and Bulldogs. Mahomet-Seymour lost Elizabeth Sims, who placed 10th last season. With that said, the team returns juniors Ava Boyd (3rd) and Callie Jansen (6th, as well as sophomore Chloe Bundren (5th) to the team.
“We will have some new faces in our varsity lineup this year,” said Groteluschen. “Lauren Bednar and Morgan Waisath who were on the cusp of varsity last year and are doing very well in practice. Ava Jansen who was injured at the end of last season is injury free and is working her way back. Freshman Hadley Grotelueschen was a top 5 runner for our junior high program and had a good summer of training with the high school team. Mt. Zion is always tough, and Coach Fox always has them prepared to compete. We graduated eight runners, five of whom had some varsity experience. This is a younger team but there is a lot of potential. We will have to see how we progress. My hope is that we gain momentum throughout the season and peak at just the right time.”
For Fox, if the Braves can stay healthy, she likes her team’s chances.
“Our goal is always to win the conference but we had some injuries and unforeseen circumstances that have prevented us from the summer running that our team has done in the past,” said Fox. “We’re going to have to get everyone healthy.”
Effingham placed fourth last season and returns sophomore Jessica Larsen, who could have a breakout sophomore season after placing fourth as a freshman. Taylorville placed fifth but did not have any runners in the top 10. Neither did Charleston, who placed last, but were missing some key pieces last season and dealt with a variety of injuries.
The Trojans return sectional qualifier Whitley Wood. Former IESA cross country runner Hadley Webb has been progressing, while senior Ila Richter appears to be close to being back to full strength.
“Hadley Webb was limited last year due to knee surgery in the offseason,” said Charleston coach Chris Hawk. “She is still working through some lingering effects that will keep her out early this season, but she has been our strongest runner this summer. I also expect to see seniors Whitley Wood (top returning runner from last year) and Ila Richter (also limited last year from knee surgery) having a great season and pushing towards the top tier of the conference.”
Mattoon did not have a scoring team at the Apollo last year due to injuries but will have enough to score this season. The team is young but returns two experienced runners in juniors, Hallee Perry and Oakley Layton.
“We would like to see improvement throughout the season,” said Mattoon coach Jim Miller. “We have a good group of younger girls that should make a big step in making our team competitive.”
Preseason Apollo Conference Rankings
- Mount Zion
Apollo Runners to Watch
Becca Heitzig (Lincoln) – Heitzig ran a personal best 17:43.5 at the Class 2A state championships, which was good enough to claim 12th overall and an All-State finish. She is the heavy favorite to win the Apollo individual title for the third year in a row.
Sofia Munoz (Mount Zion) – After dealing with injuries her sophomore year, Munoz looked better than ever last season, while also looking strong in the 800-meter dash during track. Munoz would win most other conference races.
Ava Boyd (Mahomet-Seymour) – Boyd figures to be the lead runner for the Bulldogs this season. She got her time down to 18:44.9 and placed 55th at the state championships last season. Look for Boyd to challenge Munoz for runner-up accolades after losing to her by four seconds.
Jessica Larsen (Effingham) – Larsen ran 19:36.0 at the Apollo meet and was impressed early as a freshman. Larsen got some early experience after qualifying for state last season.