By Valerie Hardy

Though somewhat ironic, running is used as a punishment in many sports. For cross country, however, running IS the sport. Just ask the cross-country runners from Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South High Schools. To them, running is passion, power, and purpose, not punishment.

That said, running can be a bit of a grind at times. Cross-country athletes train year-round, in summer heat and winter sleet. They run to warm up before their races, they run their races, and they run to cool down after their races. While their peers are at Friday night football games, runners are often in bed before halftime, needing optimal rest to perform their best on the course the next morning.

It’s this sacrifice and discipline that led the Downers Grove North boys cross country team to state and Nike Cross Regional (NXR) Midwest victories and the girls cross country team to runner-up finishes at those same major meets this fall, qualifying both teams for the ultimate in high school distance running: the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) held in Portland, Oregon on Dec. 2.

The girls and boys teams, led by siblings Lily and Ryan Eddington (HOLDING TROPHIES), placed second and first respectively at the 2023 state meet. Ryan is headed to Mizzou to run next year, but DGN’s cross country program has Lily for two more years, and their younger brother, Brendan, will likely follow in his siblings’ fast footsteps when he gets to North in 2025.

While the boys’ team made its fourth national appearance in program history (2016, 2017, 2022, and 2023), this year was the girls team’s first time advancing to NXN. This feat was more incredible as they did so with two of their top seven runners injured and unable to race toward the end of the season. One of these athletes was McKenzie Willard, the team’s No. 2 runner. Willard explained that she was running “the best races of [her] life” prior to getting a stress fracture in her foot, making the injury “incredibly disappointing.”

Thankfully, the team is “very deep “and had “many girls who stepped up when others couldn’t race due to injury,” said top runner Lily Eddington. While Willard had to sit out for state and NXR, she was cleared to race just in time for NXN.

Senior varsity runner Sarah Paul, who will join Brown University’s team next year, explained that “with injuries or not, our team was always ranked as an underdog, so we just had to put extra effort in to prove people wrong,” and prove them wrong they did with their 16th place finish against the very best teams in the nation at NXN.

Underdog or otherwise, girls cross country head coach Tim McDonald always believed the team would succeed: “If we go out and execute our race at the level we are capable of, the score will take care of itself, and it was no different as we approached NXN.”

The boys’ team, on the other hand, started the season ranked No. 1 in Illinois and remained the team to beat. They were unfazed by the pressure that inherently comes with being touted as the top team, and even when one of their top varsity veterans, University of Kentucky-bound senior Caden Weber, was not at peak performance due to an injury, the Trojans were unbeatable up through state and NXR. Although the team’s undefeated record was broken with their 7th-place finish at NXN, the athletes on the team feel their season was nothing short of perfect.

In a rare occurrence, both the boys and girls cross country teams from DGN qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals and raced against the 21 other top teams in the country.

“This year it just felt like there was something different in the air,” said Grant Schroder, a junior and second-year varsity “Top 7” runner. North’s head boys cross country coach John Sipple, however, knows the “magic” of the season was the result of years of “commitment and dedication to making small daily progress over time,” and not just for the seven runners who competed on the state and national stage. “When those seven runners compete in the varsity races, they represent the team as a whole, both past and present… it is a powerful legacy.”

And with Schroder, sophomore Will Surratt, and sophomore Phil Cupial (the team’s top finisher at the state meet and second DGN runner to cross the finish line at NXR) returning, along with a deep roster of other talented runners waiting in the wings, that legacy is likely to last.

Southside Standouts


Although Downers Grove South’s cross-country teams did not make it to state or nationals, they had successful seasons. The girls won the conference championship for the 25th straight season, sweeping all four levels with a Mustang winning each race.

They took fourth in the regional to advance further than the prior season, and the team’s frontrunner, junior Holly Johnson, qualified individually for state in spite of having been sidelined due to an injury the year before. Johnson finished 25th at state, and her coach, Doug Plunkett, lauded her “resilience, patience, and hard work [for making] her All-State finish possible.”

Johnson credits her success to her phenomenal support system, including her teammates who supported and encouraged her through her “solo run at state. Many of the girls went to practice each day the week I was training for state, even though it wasn’t required,” she said.

The boys’ team, led by senior Josh Poeschel, won the conference title and placed fourth at regionals to advance to the sectional meet. Poeschel was the individual conference champion, runner-up at regionals, and a state qualifier. He had been fighting a “nagging injury” during September and October but attributed his “solid success” at season’s end to having been “hammering mileage day after day for several years on end.”

Poeschel, who, according to coach Brian Caldwell is “the consummate teammate” and a runner who is “incredibly disciplined and does everything the right way,” plans to continue his cross-country career at Washington University in St. Louis. While Poeschel will leave a hole in South’s lineup, the team’s future looks bright given the growth this season of sophomores John Clinton and Ethan Traugott (who placed first in his heat at NXR this fall).


In Their Own Words

The “Top 7” on DGN’s state championship team share the ingredients that contributed to their stellar season

Zach Bender, senior
“I truly believe we have the best coaching staff in the nation. They take an honest interest in each and every athlete on the team, which is why we have a team with such depth.”
Phil Cupial, sophomore “We train together and work together every single day. We run best when we fuel off each other, and that’s why we ran so well, not only at state and NXR but at all the races this season.”
Ryan Eddington, senior “This year’s success had a lot to do with our super sophomores. Having underclassmen step up like they did made such a big difference.”
Isaac Moss, senior “Training with each other every day gives us the confidence going into a race that we are at the level of fitness we need to dominate.”
Grant Schroder, junior
“We build strong bonds inside and outside of practice, which helps us run together as a pack. Everyone wants the best for this team and have learned to put team results ahead of their own.”
Will Surratt, sophomore
“Our coaches and previous teams have laid a strong foundation that we were able to build upon… Also, I’ve found that the little things add up. Eating the right foods and making sure to get enough sleep has really helped perform well at this level.”
Caden Weber, senior “Going to NXN last year and placing 10th gave us the confidence that we can legitimately compete at the national level.”