HOBART -- There's a carrot of incentive in front of Illiana Christian's noses this season.
Having gained Indiana High School Athletic Associaton post-season eligibility, the Vikings' cross country program has more to aim for now.
"We were supposed to sit out four years, but last year they passed a resolution that allowed us to compete after two years," girls coach Luke Fennema said after his team won the Hobart Invitational in Big Maple Lake. "Before, our season ended basically the first week of October. Everybody else in Indiana kept going. Now we can look ahead and we can plan."
It's no coincidence Fennema, a second-year head coach who has been with the program for a decade, saw better effort in summer workouts.
"I think any time you have a goal beyond just the last big invitational, that gives you more motivation," he said. "Our girls definitely trained more than they have before and I'm sure that played a part in it. We've got goals of making it through sectionals, regionals, semistate, everything."
Illiana used a 1-2-4 finish from freshman Avery Olthof and sophomores Alex Vis and Faith VanWeiren to best the host Brickies 35-44 with Andrean (55) third.
"We were at Lake Central (Saturday), so we went from last to first in five days," Fennema said. "It's nice to be with a little more of our size in competition. The team is still pretty young. This top three has emerged recently as well. Alex and Faith ran decently close to each other last year. Faith was always a little ahead. Alex has made a lot of progress this summer and Avery coming in has obviously been a big boost. She our No. 3 runner two weeks ago and Faith led us at one meet, so it's fun to have that mix. We're working on getting that four-five to move up a little bit."
Olthoff came to Illiana from Crown Point Christian, where she ran cross country for three years. The two-mile course was more like what she was used to running in grade school.
"The race wasn't the same obviously, so I picked up my pace a little bit," said Olthof, who timed 13:16. "I did run a little faster. It's the first one I've gotten first in. It's pretty fun. It's a good feeling. We all ran together and pulled ahead right after the first mile. The 5Ks, usually, Alex and I stick together for most of the race. She wins some, I win some. Grade school was a lot smaller, so it was a little easier to win. The competition helps you push a lot harder."
Though Olthoff and Vis (Lansing Christian) went to different schools, they had met in a few races previously, so they weren't total strangers.
"She was always ahead of me because she was a year older," Olthoff said. "We've been practicing together this year. We usually run as a team. It's really fun to be a part of a team like this. We're a pretty small school, so we practice really hard to keep doing the best we can. I hope we have a full season."
While Illiana draws students from a variety of schools, building team chemistry isn't much of an issue.
"There's definitely pluses and minuses," Fennema said. "Sometimes, you're taking former rivals from middle schools and now you're having them on the same team, but we've never seen much of that. They tend to set it aside pretty quickly for the sake of the team and the school. This team has gelled really quickly."
Andrean's Nicole Cespedes and Gina Cappello finished third and fifth, respectively.