Micah Trancoso ties and reties his spikes over and over again. Alex DeForest gazes and focuses during a pre-race ritual that his coach, Val Gassman, can only describe as "unusual."
In-race differences also abound for the Newman boys cross country team. While, most often, it's Trancoso or sophomore Bryson Reyes coming down the shoot first, Quincy Coomes is the fastest at the gun, and DeForest's long legs give him the most powerful kick down the homestretch.
But after finishing runner-up at the Class 1A Rock Falls regional, every Comet swapped jerseys with a Bureau Valley runner. And last Saturday, after waiting about an hour to find out they were headed to state with a fourth-place finish at the Oregon sectional, each and every Comet stripped back down to his uniform and pointed toward Peoria.
"They're all so very different, but when they toe the line, they're one," Gassman said.
"We all just run for each other," sophomore Drew Rosengren said. "I feel like we're a family, and we'll do anything for each other. In the summer, we grew closer. And during the regular season, the family got even closer."
"Running alone is kind of a pain," Coomes, a sophomore, said. "When you're running with a group of people you enjoy, you can talk on the run. You can have fun and throw things around."
You read that right. Whether it be walnuts, rocks or the occasional egg – again, not a typo – the Comets have spent the week mixing some shenanigans into their tapering training runs.
During a 6-miler earlier this week, they found an egg and just couldn't resist tossing it around. But it's all fun and games until someone gets yolk on their shoes.
"Bryson dropped the egg," Coomes said.
"We had it going for a good 2 miles," Reyes said. "They tossed it back to me and it just nicked off the tip of my fingers and fell."
"That kind of ruined the fun halfway through," DeForest added, drawing a laugh from the whole team.
Why wouldn't DeForest be in a joking mood? He's longed for a return to Peoria since he was on the 2009 state champion squad, although he didn't crack the top seven that took aim at Detweiller Park. Also in the program was fellow senior Michael Farringer, then a JV runner who watched his big brother, Eric, place 37th.
Factor in Dylan Reyes (Bryson's brother) and Jake Trancoso (Micah's cousin) placing fifth and 13th in that race, and Newman edged Canton by a single point.
This year's Comets never had illusions of repeating that feat. But missing the fifth and final qualifying spot by 16 points a year ago in Oregon kindled a flame that the Comets fanned over the summer.
"I think that's why they wanted it so bad," Gassman said. "After just missing last year, they made up their mind that they'd work twice as hard in the summer and make it this year."
Reyes and Trancoso didn't have the race they envisioned last Saturday, the former unable to find running buddy Kevin Claus of Riverdale before the gun sounded.
"I always look for him at the start right away, because he never goes out too hard and we always weave around people together," Reyes said. "But I couldn't find him, and that just really cost me position. I was stuck in the back from the get-go."
Trancoso struggled to overcome an ailing IT band. But he knows a thing or two about mind-over-matter. The night before races, he'll bone up on some inspirational phrases by watching films like Braveheart.
The following morning, he evokes his inner Williams Wallace and gives the pre-race speech.
"I just kind of make it up as I go," Trancoso said. "It varies meet to meet. I try to tell the guys that even though we're a small school, we belong out there with the bigger schools."
"You want to prove to them that we can stay up with them and even beat them," Coomes said.