As we hit the halfway point of the cross-country season, the Neuqua Valley boys and girls are among many teams in Illinois looking to hit their stride once the calendar flips to October. The boys team is coming off a 5th-place finish in the Richard Spring Invitational in Peoria, while the girls took 15th out of 61 teams in the same race. The two blue and gold squads are also running their way to success in a season of transition, with a familiar face taking over for one team and a new one now leading the way for the other. Longtime boys assistant coach Jamie Janota takes the reigns from retired Hall-of-Fame head coach Paul Vandersteen, while Matt Johnson is now the head of the varsity girls, taking over for Bruyn Yunk after coaching the boys and girls cross country teams at Plainfield East. This Feature Story is sponsored by Edward-Elmhurst Health.
“I think we have a great crew of guys on the team, and while I’ve been working the past twenty years as an assistant, I’m coaching these guys who are seniors now since they were freshmen and sophomores. So i’m excited to work with positive guys who are willing to work hard and who want to push themselves to the limit,” said Neuqua Valley boys cross country head coach Jamie Janota.
“It’s one of those unique opportunities last year I coached out of the district I coached at Plainfield East in the past four years. So I wanted to coach back in 204 when I teach, and this is one of those opportunities that you get fortunate about, and you’re very fortunate to have, so I feel very blessed to be the head coach,” said Neuqua Valley girls cross country head coach Matt Johnson.
Big spikes to fill
Janota is only the second boys cross-country head coach for the Wildcats after Vandersteen took charge when the school opened its doors in 1997. During Vadersteen’s tenure, the Cats took home not one, not two, but three state championships and eight state trophies overall. That is a large set of cleats to fill for Janota, but after helping Vandersteen and the Wildcats to several of those state trophies, he knows it is a marathon and not a sprint to the promised land.
“Moderation and consistency, that was always a big thing for him. There’s no need to push yourself to limits and limits because it’s the course of working hard over a long period of time. Patience was also the one thing that he bestowed upon me. I can get emotional, but more often than not I tend to think things through and have a more measured approach as things go,” said Janota.
New scene but a comfortable setting
While Johnson may be new to the Neuqua program, he is good friends with Yunk and he learned a lot about the team from the former sheriff. With the foundation laid down by the former heads to the program smoothing the transition, Johnson knows the future for the blue and gold is in good shape with two new head coaches now in charge.
“The wheels were already on the bus in both programs, and it was just little tweaks here and there, maybe a change in philosophy or a run here and there, or maybe a different workout. Bruyn set us up for success, and Paul set Jamie up for success as you’re handing over two phenomenal programs, and our job was not to screw it up,” said Johnson with a smile.
Each coach will have their own learning experiences, whether it’s getting their feet set with a new system or making an already successful program of their own. Both teams will be surrounded with state-caliber runners who are ready to line up at the starting line and face the challenges when the season hits the home stretch.
“There are a lot of things that you learn along the way, and I think you can’t take what you did one season and apply it to the next. I’ve been very grateful. I’ve had success everywhere I’ve gone and part of that is that you have good athletes that want to get better,” said Johnson.
“They’re just good-natured guys who are there to help one another improve. Now, when you think about Cross Country as a team sport, and yes, I’m out there by myself, but every person I catch is helping the team. That’s the team mentality I love them to buy into, and they have,”
With conference and postseason just a month away, it will be exciting to see how fast these new-look Wildcats can run.
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