Naperville North's Girls Finished Off Special Season With Epic Performance

They huddled together in the cold and rain just beyond the finishing chute at Nike Cross Nationals on Saturday, mud kicked up on their shins and elbows and faces.

But it was impossible to ignore, this sense of success after a grueling 5K at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Oregon. 

The North Naperville (IL) High girls knew they had accomplished something big, regardless of whether it would end with a national title or not. 

"I think for all of us, when it gets tough we think about all the girls watching back home and all of each other running on the course together," said junior Alex Morris, who was second through the line for Naperville in 12th in 17:59.4. "Knowing that and trying to pass every person we could, that (was) our strategy."

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Minutes would pass, and pre-title announcement interviews would come, but Naperville remained optimistic before stepping on the stage as one of three podium finishers. Would the Huskies knock Fayetteville-Manlius off the top of the podium? 

"Just five points separated the first and second place teams today," the announcer would say. 

Ultimately, the FM girls remained on top -- they themselves overcome significant obstacle to score their 11th win in 12 seasons after Sophie Ryan pushed through food poisoning the night before to finish 43rd -- with 89 points, while Naperville scored 94 points, the fourteenth lowest score in meet history. 

Interestingly enough, though, had the score been tied, Naperville would have won on displacement. 

"It's always a hard thing, with five points to go it's so close," said senior Hannah Ricci, who was third for the team and 34th overall in 18:31.5. "We all know we gave it all we had. Whatever happens, happens. All three teams on the podium were amazing. Every other team that ran was amazing. As long as we gave it all we got and be every person we could, we were happy with whatever result we got, whether it was second or 22nd."

But Naperville, which had qualified for NXN for the sixth straight year, certainly achieved something special, earning their highest finish since 2014 when the Huskies were fourth. A year ago, the team finished 10th and returned four of its top seven.

On Saturday, senior Sarah Schmitt, a University of Indiana signee, once again led the Huskies as their lead runner, finishing 8th overall in 17:57.2, which was a 45-place improvement. 

The junior Morris, 75th in 2016, moved up to 12th on Saturday in 17:59.4, giving the Huskies two in before Manlius' second. 

Ricci was 34th in 18:31.5, Megan Driscoll was 71st in 19:05.2 and Claire Hill was 84th in 19:12.4. Hill crossed the line five places ahead of Manlius' fifth, Palmer Madsen. 

But it was telling how Naperville raced on Saturday. 

Through the first mile split, the Huskies were just in fifth place with 386 points, with Morris and Schmitt running tandem in 45th-46th place, while Ricci (65) and Hill (89) found position. Driscoll, though, ultimately made up the most ground, as she went through the first split in 157th place. FM was in first with 205.

But Naperville, which had won the Roy Griak Invitational by just two points over Great Oak (Ca.) in September, knew the race would ultimately come back to them. 

And the Huskies started to close from there, moving up to second-place by the two-mile split. Schmitt and Morris flourished in that stretch, moving up 30 places to 12th and 19th. 

Ricci and Hill went to 37th and 82nd, while Driscoll pounced on a conservative start, picking off 50 runners. FM's lead was cut to 57 points by then. 

"Just running for each other, it's ridiculous how much motivation that can give you when you're really tired and you think you can't go faster or move up," Schmitt said. 

Schmitt, who's season was reminiscent of Naperville's last great distance talent, Judy Pendergast, finished exactly where the former Huskie standout and current University of Oregon runner did in 2015. 

And Naperville did something else with the performance. 

They lived up to the hype that was first placed on them after a win at Roy Griak on September 23. 

By October 10, the Huskies were ranked No. 1 in the country in the Flo50 rankings, though they would then move to No. 3 after the Manhattan Invitational -- in which FM dominated with an epic performance -- and would stay there the rest of the season. 

"No matter where we're ranked or how we're viewed, we always like to see ourselves as the underdog, just because it's a really fun way to prove people wrong," she said. "I think that after Griak, the hype did die down a little bit. 

"We didn't forget that that was a possibility that for us to be ranked so highly. We had high targets throughout the season no matter what and we just ran for it. It turned out well." 

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