A look inside the fleet-footed Sages

Earning second place at the state meet is quite the feat, so it might surprise some people how the Monticello girls' cross-country team found out about its historic accomplishment. There wasn't much fanfare or an official presentation – that would come later. No, it was just two Sage girls and their bubbling curiosity.

Over the course of a wild year that included impromptu wrestling tournaments, intriguing pre-race rituals and plenty of chocolate milk, many differing personalities came together as a family under guidance from their teddy-bear coach.

Maddie Tutich is the opinionated one. Emily Foley is the calming, stable influence (usually). Audrey Duncan is the crazy and funny one. Katie Douglas and Kathleen Tracy are just the freshmen. Maggie Utgaard is the sweet one and knows everything there is to know about plants. Senior Hannah Remmert is the wise one and everyone's ride home.

 

Did you hear?

After seeing their final teammate cross the Detweiller Park finish line in Peoria, juniors Foley and Hannah Houska set out to see where the team finished on the leaderboard. They had heard it was possible they had fallen as far back as sixth, which would have left a disappointing feeling coming off a third-place finish the year before.

But an official noticed the two girls, asked if they were on the Monticello team, and before they could even respond with a yes, said “you guys got second.”

It was a casual encounter, more in line with running into an old teacher than a famous athlete. Houska and Foley reacted like they had just met Olympian Lolo Jones.

“We just jumped up and started screaming,” Houska said. “Everyone around us was laughing.”

Houska was allowed to glance at the team standings in the IHSA tent, but she only made it two spots down the list before returning with the good news.

“After I saw second was Monticello (the rest of the results) didn’t matter,” she said. “I ran back and hugged Emily, and we went to find all of the girls we could.”

As word spread of the Sages’ runner-up finish – best ever at the state level in school history – so did the hugs, the cheers and, of course, the tears.

Her teammates claim Foley is normally not the emotional one – a title reserved for Houska – but the junior couldn’t suppress tears after hearing where the team finished.

“I was just proud that all of our hard work paid off,” Foley said. 

Hard work that began mere weeks after Monticello’s third-place finish at the 2011 state meet the year before. There was no rest for these weary runners as the team logged hundreds of miles in the cold chill of winter and under the simmering sun of this year’s record-setting summer.

All of it – all the training, all the time, all the sweat and, yes, all of the blisters – was worth it. Not because of the team’s chance at something special, but because it was already a special team.

“I feel like it would be a lot harder if we didn’t have such a good team,” sophomore Duncan said. “If you go outside and it’s 20 degrees outside, windy and snowy, you don’t really want to run. But if you have 10 other girls who are there with you, it’s different. We all just kind of push each other. We have to do it together.”

The year-long training regimen results in a 14-race season that lasts from the final week of August to the first weekend of November. The individual three-mile races are only small but meaningful blips in the lives of these high school girls.

“Yeah, it’s only a dozen weekends, but state was worth every minute of it,” Duncan said. “I don’t think anyone would have done anything different or regrets working as hard as they did because it paid off in the end.”

 

One moment in time

Members of the girls’ cross-country team have plenty of pre-race rituals. Some weird – like Houska brushing her teeth twice before every morning meet – and some not so weird: Duncan always wears black socks, for example. Meals of choice don’t vary much as most of the team prefers oatmeal or eggs to settle the stomach before a race.

But perhaps the most important moment of the day comes minutes before the race when the girls circle together and Houska leads them in a prayer.

“Hey, God, it’s us. Thank you for this beautiful day and all these beautiful girls,” Houska says before every race.

“Emily just has a more official voice before races,” freshman Tracy said. “Her voice will change.”

“It also changed Friday night when we had our team meeting (before the race),” Duncan added before breaking into her impression of Foley, drawing a chorus of laughter from the rest of the team, including Foley herself.

The period of quiet reflection ends with a typical team cheer. The Sages would rather not draw attention to themselves, other than finishing near the top of the leaderboard that is.

“We try to make sure that we’re not too loud or up in people’s faces,” Duncan said. “Some teams go out there and scream a song for like 10 minutes straight.”

Don’t get them wrong, the Sages are musically inclined when the situation calls for it.

What does Houska listen to before a big race? The All-State runner’s playlist revolves around a trio of jams: “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO, “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy, and the popular athletic tune “We Are the Champions” by Queen.

All Sage runners share a common song, one that coach Jeff Butler only plays before the state meet: Whitney Houston’s Emmy Award winning “One Moment in Time” recorded for the 1988 Summer Olympics.

“I remember running up the straight away, singing that in my head,” freshman Douglas said.

Houston’s anthem not only connects current members of the cross-country team, but former runners like Class 1A state champion Steve Schroeder as well. Most of the girls looked up to past Sages whether in middle school or joining the team as freshmen.

“My oldest brother, Jack, used to run cross-country,” Foley said. “I would come to all of his meets and see the older girl runners, primarily (2007 grad) Kerby Waddell at the time. I remember I would always go up to her and say ‘I want to be just like you when I’m in high school.’ She’s kind of why I started running, along with Jack.”

Utgaard didn’t get into cross-country until her eighth-grade year. The current sophomore needed a little prying from Duncan and Tutich before lacing up her running shoes.

“They basically recruited me to do it,” Utgaard said. “I really looked up to them because they had already been doing this for two years and I didn’t know what it was.”

Utgaard remembers looking up to former Monticello running star Michelle Moyer, but said last year’s boys’ team left a lasting impression on her as a runner.

“They were probably the biggest part of me developing as a runner,” she said. “You have your girls’ team, and that’s who you hang out with all the time. Then you have the guys’ team who you work out with. I saw some of them as brothers even. I don’t have anyone older than me; I’m the oldest in my family. It was just always really cool to have a big brother on the team.”

While Utgaard warmed up to the idea of cross-country quickly, it took others on the team a little longer.

“I didn’t really care about running in middle school. I thought it was really stupid and I don’t even know why I did it,” Duncan said. “When I got to high school I finally realized what it’s all about. Steve Schroeder was a big thing because he was the seventh runner on a team that didn’t even make it out of sectionals his freshman year, and he progressed and became state champ. That’s my favorite story.”

For others, it was their parents who played a large role.

“My dad was my big inspiration,” Tutich said. “When I was growing up, he was training for marathons. Then he hurt his knee and had to get it replaced so he can’t run anymore. I just want to make him proud.”

Remmert admittedly hated running when she was younger, but her dad peaked her interest in the sport with an unusual method: a human game of fetch. Remmert’s father would throw a golf ball down the road and have her retrieve it, except he would run alongside.

“For like two miles!” Remmert said. “When I came (into the program) it was so different. There was only a handful of girls and most of them didn’t really care, just trying to get through the workout. But something changed, probably with Kelsey Hardimon, our first All-Stater, and then Michelle Moyer. They just changed the whole program around.”

“I started running in sixth grade and I was actually really mad about it because it meant I couldn’t do rec league soccer anymore,” Houska said. “My dad made my sisters do it, so he made me do it, too.”

For Tracy and Douglas, the two freshmen who ran at Detweiller, they need to look no further than their current teammates for leadership and inspiration.

“When I started cross-country this year with these girls, they helped us out and gave us a lot of advice,” Tracy said. “They were easy to look up to.”

“We took them under our wing because they needed a lot of help,” Duncan added with a grin.

 

Leaving an imprint

“I think we can all agree, though, that our biggest inspiration now is Coach Butler. And Mrs. Coach (Mary Butler),” Foley said.

Butler refuses to talk about himself or the obvious impact he's had on the Monticello program. He'd much rather keep the focus on his runners and his team. In fact, everything Butler does is for the team.

That won't stop these girls from explaining how important Butler has been to them and to Monticello cross-country.

“He is probably one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met,” Utgaard said. “He cares about what he does so much. He goes home, he plans our workout, he looks up other teams and their races and he watches cross-country races. He’s just really passionate about us and really cares.

“It’s really cool to have someone like that. I don’t know what I would do without Coach Butler. He’s probably been one of the biggest influences in my high school career so far. I would not be the same person if I didn’t have coach.”

“With a lot of coaches, they’re just a coach from when the season starts to when it’s over, from three to five after school. But Coach is year-round, 24-7 everyday he’s the coach, and he’s the coach of Monticello cross-country,” Duncan said.

With Butler, coaching is more than just showing up for practices and meets. It's a chance to make an impact during one of the most important times in kids' lives.

“He’s our coach and he wants us to do well at cross-country and he wants us to do well in races, but I think his biggest goal is to help us become better young adults,” Houska said.

“He teaches you that the small things are really important. Not just for running – like staying hydrated and eating right and getting lots of sleep – but when people do things for our team, making sure we send them a thank you note,” Remmert said.

Because of that, Butler is sometimes seen as a strict disciplinarian, always stressing the rules, making sure his runners do the right thing at all times.

But the girls know he has a soft side. Douglas even likened him to a teddy bear.

“He seems mean and really tough at first,” Tutich said. “He’s really intimidating when you first meet him, but then the longer you’re with him, the nicer he is. During the week of state, he’s really soft.”

“He’s pretty intimidating that first week,” Tracy agreed.

By now, most know of Butler's pending retirement at the end of the school year. It's another topic he doesn't like to discuss, but the 13-year track and cross-country coach allowed himself a small moment after the Okaw Valley Conference meet earlier in the season and got a little emotional when Monticello athletics director Randy Moss presented him with a plaque following the race at Lodge Park.

“It’ll be different next year,” Foley said.

“It’s going to be really weird next year not having Coach,” Utgaard said.

Even though he won't be in a coaching capacity next season, the girls are certain he'll stick around the program, only this time as a fan.

“He’s totally going to come to all of our meets,” Douglas said. “I think I told Mrs. Coach after state, ‘I can’t wait to see you watching us next year at our meets.’ I didn’t even ask her if she was coming. You just know they’re going to be there.”

Butler's pride in his runners is apparent; not just for their accomplishments on the course, but for the people they have become.

“Both teams were fortunate enough this year to qualify for the state meet, which that in itself is quite an accomplishment,” Butler said at a recognition assembly for the team last week. “There's a lot of responsibilities that go along with that. I want to thank (the kids) for putting in what they needed to put in to be successful this year.

“It's a real privilege to be in this profession. We as coaches, teachers, educators – it's a real privilege. It's the best occupation in the world. You guys make it that way,” added Butler.

 

More than just running

This group is more than just a team, though. Spend five minutes with them and you are sure to be lost in a maze of interesting stories and inside jokes.

Like the time the girls had a wrestling tournament in Foley's basement. Or all of their summer runs to the grocery store for gallon (yes, gallon) jugs of chocolate milk after a workout. These friends are loaded with stories covering all topics.

“Some of those days when you don't want to run, we're probably going to do something really dumb and it's going to be hilarious,” Houksa said. “We'll usually end up doing something really silly and make some memories.”

“It's not just running all the time,” Tutich said. “We make sure we have fun.”

Fans often mix up Duncan and Douglas – though they don't understand why – and Foley and Houska are often mistaken for sisters.

No one is spared from nicknames either. Duncan was given the name “Motumbo” after camp, but received a clarification after turning the wrong way in the Cumberland meet this year.

“After that it was Bonus Mile Motumbo,” Houska said.

Duncan explained: “I knew that we had turned the wrong way, but by then I thought if I turned back it'd be just as long so I just kept going. Coach came up to me after and said 'Duncan, you know you would have had one of your best races all season if that hadn't happened.' Thanks Coach.”

Those personalities and group dynamic allow Monticello to form bonds not only with each other, but with other cross-country teams in the area. The Sages are so close with the team from St. Joseph-Ogden that they've created a combined team name: St. Montijello.

“We always message each other before meets and say 'Good luck from this half of St. Montijello,'” Duncan said.

And despite finishing behind only them in Peoria, the Sages have no ill will toward the three-time defending state champ St. Teresa team.

“We love them, too,” Foley said.

Duncan is close friends with Class 1A state champ Ivy Handley and the entire team competes hard against the Bulldogs while still maintaining strong friendships.

“Hannah and I have a deal that if Hannah can't be the one to cross the finish line first, I always want it to be Ivy,” Duncan said. “It's a friendly rivalry, though. They know that if they're off their game, they have to watch out because we're always working up to them.”

“They're almost an extension of our team,” Houska said. “We wouldn't be as good without them either. It's nice to be able to be friends with them.”

In their eyes, finishing second to St. Teresa doesn't diminish their accomplishment one bit, and they hope the fans recognize that as well.

“One thing Coach tried to play up this season was don't always think about just beating St. Teresa at Detweiller,” Duncan said. “We got second out of 41 teams, it's still a big deal.”

 

It takes a village

No individual steals the spotlight on the Monticello cross-country team. It didn't matter to the girls where they placed as long as the team brought home a trophy. Everyone shares the glory and the accolades.

This year it was the girls who finished second while the boys placed 11th after a successful season of growth and improvement. Last year it was Schroeder leading the headlines as both teams finished third.

“I don't think it's a boys' team and a girls' team,” Houska said. “I think it's one team. The boys are really so much of the trophy, too. They're so much of us and who we are. They're such a driving force and they're always someone to shoot for.”

Tutich said it's harder in track because the girls don't practice with the guys.

“It gets really old, really fast,” Duncan said.

“I know one of my favorite parts of a cross-country meet is when we're all cooled down, we're just there to watch to guys run and cheering as loud as we can,” Foley said.

Despite an exhausting and excitement-filled year, the girls' cross-country team has one single thing on its mind for next season: 3, 2, 1.

The Sages finished third in the state meet in 2011, second this year, and now they hope to be atop the board next November. Monticello returns all seven runners from this year's runner-up team.

With that goal in mind, expect to see this group of girls on the streets a lot this offseason.

“We try as hard as we can to be the best,” Duncan said. “Second is great and there's always next year.”

 

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