AMBOY – After the first mile, Amboy fans were busy counting.
One by one, runners passed by the eventual finish line, barely a third of the way into the Amboy Columbus Day Cross Country Invitational. The count reached eight when Megan Grady came along.
The Amboy freshman stood in ninth place, within shouting distance of the leaders, but still close enough to be caught from behind if she faltered. The question: How would she hold up against top-flight competition.
As it turned out, she held up just fine. She held firm in ninth place, crossing the finish line in 18 minutes, 16 seconds over the 2.9-mile Shady Oaks Country Club course. It was the best finish by an Amboy runner since the invite's infancy, when the race was divided among small and big schools.
Grady won the Three Rivers Meet a few weeks ago, but this was a decided step up in competition. Six of the top 25 Class 1A teams in the state were entered, according to the latest Dyestat rankings.
Grady was ninth after the first mile, still in ninth after the second mile, and held her position the rest of the way. The last third of the race begins with a long climb up the No. 11 fairway at Shady Oaks, a stretch that often separates contenders from pretenders.
"That cardiac hill, oh, it was a killer," Grady said. "Our only advantage is that we knew the course, and we knew that was going to come. It was crazy out there."
"Being a freshman and doing what she's done thus far, that's pretty outstanding," Amboy coach Bob Halberg said.
The Clippers finished 13th as a team with 385 points. Rounding out the lineup were Jennifer Popovich (54th, 19:53), Erin Hosto (111th, 21:06), Kaitlin Boers (114th, 21:09) and Sydney Langlier (159th, 22:12).
Halberg noted Brenna Rieker, who placed 185th with a time of 23:20, has been the team's No. 5 runner for most of the season, but Langlier has closed the gap, and is now among the counting runners.
"Hopefully the two of them are going to keep pushing each other, because that's only going to make us better," Halberg said. "As a team, we're really jelling well, and they're running their best at the end of the year, and that's all we ask for."
Erie-Prophetstown finished 20th among 33 teams with 471 points. Pacing the Panthers was Corrie Reiley, who placed 23rd with a time of 18:46. She had a time of 18:53 a year ago.
"I'm really happy," Reiley said. "I improved my time from last year, and that's what I'm going for every meet."
The unquestioned top individual was Byron senior Kelsey Hildreth, who won in 16:47. That is tied for No. 2 on the invite's top times list, matching the time posted by El Paso-Gridley's Julie James in 2010. The top time remains 16:37, posted by Carthage's Katelyn Bastert in 2005.
Defending champion Maria Brauer of PORTA was second in 17:26. That was 22 seconds faster than she ran a year ago, but no match for Hildreth.
Making Hildreth's performance all the more amazing is she was a diver for the Byron swim team as a freshman and sophomore.
"This is only my second year running cross country, so pretty much every race is an improvement on my last time," said Hildreth, who has not lost a race this season.
Hildreth finished 47th at state as a junior with a time of 18:53. She returned to Detweiller Park in Peoria for the First to the Finish Invite on Sept. 14, and won with a time of 17:25.
"I worked really hard over the summer, so I'm hoping for a strong finish at state," Hildreth said.
Byron finished fourth with 208 points, behind Wheaton Academy (116), Annawan-Wethersfield (127) and Elmwood-Brimfield (200).
Top 3 teams
1. Wheaton Academy 116
2. Annawan-Wethersfield 127
3. Elmwood-Brimfield 200
Top local individual
9. Megan Grady (Amboy) 18:16