PROPHETSTOWN — In 2018, the Erie-Prophetstown boys' cross country team made a significant breakthrough by topping perennial Three Rivers Conference power Sterling Newman for the league title.
Two of the key runners from last year's Panther squad, Ben DeNeve and Max Weidel, have since graduated, leaving a sizable hole in the E-P lineup. If the Panthers look to repeat as TRAC champions this fall, filling that gap is of the utmost importance.
"We definitely lost quite a bit with Ben and Max," said E-P head coach Elizabeth Green, "but we do have a good group coming back. All of them are just champing at the bit. They're ready to go, they're training pretty good, and they're looking forward to the season."
Stepping up to fill the shoes of DeNeve, a top 5 performer at last year's TRAC meet, and Weidel, who finished one spot outside of the top 10, will be the senior trio of Cameron Abell, Tyler Holldorf and Chris Link.
Of the three, Link is also coming off a top 10 conference placing, with Abell and Holldorf both finishing among the top 20 runners.
"Beating Newman last year was one of our big goals," said Link, whose efforts also helped Erie-Prophetstown to advance to the Class 1A sectionals last season. "We wanted to get the conference title. We knew we had an outside shot at it, and it all came together that day."
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Abell feels that with Newman graduating two of its top runners, conference champion Spencer Mauch and runner-up Shay Hafner, the road is open for the Panthers to repeat that feat this fall.
"Last year, we knew we really had to push ourselves, and we still have to do that this year," said Abell, "but I feel like if we do that, if we push ourselves to the maximum, we can come out really good and get the conference title again. That is our goal."
In addition to the three returning seniors, the underclass duo of junior Alex Gustaf and sophomore Andrew Bomleny got key varsity experience last year.
"All of the guys coming back this year want to drop their times," said Link. "We're just trying to build upon what we did last year, even though we lost Ben and Max."
Beyond repeating as Three Rivers champions, E-P also wants to take the next step and run as a team at the state meet in Peoria for the first time since 2011. Holldorf feels that the experiences of the last two years can help the team take that step.
"It's been a goal of ours since I was a sophomore," Holldorf said. "We felt we could do it two years ago, but came up short. Last year, I thought we had a better chance, but came up short again. This year, we definitely have the possibility. We're looking forward to this season."