The Thate family has contributed a lot to the girls cross-country program over the years, and they may have saved the best for last.
Freshman Amanda Thate, the youngest of three sisters, has burst onto the scene this fall and already broken the school’s three-mile record twice, in the process becoming one of the top runners in the area and fueling hopes that the Mustangs will qualify for the state finals as a team for the first time since 2001.
“She’s still learning and getting experience,” Downers South Coach Doug Plunkett said. “She’s still a 14-year-old freshman, but if she stays healthy and keeps working, she could be All-State.”
A runner needs to finish in the top 25 at the state meet to earn All-State honors, something only six runners in school history have accomplished. Myrna Cantu was the last to do it when she placed 12th in 1991.
Thate currently has the 12th-fastest time in Illinois this fall. She ran 17:13 at the Peoria Central Invitational on Oct. 1 at Detweiller Park, the same course the state meet will be run on. That smashed her own school record of 17:32 set last month.
“I was expecting [to run] 18s,” Thate said. “I wasn’t really expecting to be one of those runners who were running 17s consistently, so it was a little wakeup call when I first went 17. I was pretty shocked. I was like, ‘Are you sure you didn’t mess up that time?’ I was overwhelmed.”
Thate’s sister, Jacquelyn, wasn’t surprised.
“No, I knew she was going to be coming in strong,” said Jacquelyn, who clocked 17:47 at Peoria, the third-fastest mark in school history. “She’s a great runner. She’s been running with us since fifth grade, so I kind of saw it coming. She always pushes us.”
Jacquelyn, 17, is the only senior among Downers South’s top five runners. A four-year starter, she has been the Mustangs No. 2 or No. 3 runner along with Juniors Katie Strelau, who was a state qualifier last year, Amy Rotunno and Katrina Friedrich. Rotunno held the previous school record of 17:56, set last year.
Together, that group has consistently impressed, winning the Mustang Invitational and the Naperville Invitational and finishing second at Peoria Central and Lake Park. The Mustangs are heavily favored to win the West Suburban Conference Gold Division championship for the 13th consecutive year next week and are primed to be a force in the postseason.
“I expect the whole team to qualify [for state],” Plunkett said. “I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t with what we’ve shown up to this point. We have a chance to potentially win the sectional and maybe [finish] top 10 at state. This is a big deal for us.”
If the Mustangs do qualify for state, the Thate sisters will have played a big role. Ironically, the person who started that quest won’t be there.
Nicole Thate, 20, began the family dynasty. Now a junior who runs at Missouri State, Nicole was a four-time state qualifier in track and a four-time all-conference performer in cross-country. She won the conference championship as a freshman in 2005 and set the school record of 17:57 in 2007, a mark that stood until Rotunno lowered it by a second last fall.
“She’s the one that got us started when she signed up in sixth grade to do cross country,” Jacquelyn said. “If she didn’t, who knows if we’d even be on this path at this moment? I just remember her always being there for me on runs. If I was backing off on a run she would change her workout to motivate me to stay with her and push me through it all.”
Nicole’s example also rubbed off on Amanda, who like Jacquelyn started competing in sixth grade but was involved in running before that.
“In all the years I’ve been running, she’s been a really good role model and she keeps pushing herself toward [her goals],” Amanda said. “She’s a good idol to try to live up to. I think when I was younger I saw how good [her sisters] were at it and I just decided that I wanted to be like them.”
Plunkett, who has coached all three Thates, said the sisters have all contributed in their own way.
“Amanda, in the short time she’s been here, has gotten faster times, but they all have their strengths,” Plunkett noted. “Nicole was a little more of a sprint-speed kind of person. She was part of our All-State 4x4 relay [which finished eighth at the 2006 state track meet] when she was a freshman and she qualified for state in the 800 and the mile several times.”
PASSING ON KNOWLEDGE
Jacquelyn was a freshman when Nicole was a senior. That year Jacquelyn finished second in the conference, ahead of Nicole, in a situation that is similar to this season, where Amanda is excelling while learning from her sibling.
“It was that way with Nicole and Jackie, so she got to kind of learn the ropes through Nicole and I think Amanda is doing the same thing with Jackie,” Plunkett said. “When you get to be a junior and senior I think you get a little more focused and goal-oriented and know what it’s about.”
Of course, most sports teams have upperclassmen who mentor younger kids, but that is especially true in sports like cross-country where freshmen often make an immediate impact. That process is made easier when the mentor is a family member.
“[Running with Jacquelyn] has been really cool because we’ve been able to push each other during workouts,” Amanda said. “Like when I want to stop she doesn’t let me. She keeps telling me to stay positive and keep going and I feel I like try to help push her, too, sometimes. So I feel like it’s really an advantage to have a sister on the team.”
Jacquelyn feels the same way.
“To have a sister on the team is a benefit for me because you have the extra person there always supporting you and helping you focus on your goals,” she said. “It’s like an extra person there giving you drive.”
As the middle sister, Jacquelyn, who was conference runner-up her first two years and third last year, has seen it from both angles and enjoys passing on the insight she learned from Nicole.
“Nicole was always there to support me and even on my down days she would always be there to pick me up,” Jacquelyn said. “I just try to make sure that Amanda is always doing [her thing] and [that nobody] puts the pressure on her and [instead] always divide it evenly throughout the team because it’s not just the No. 1 runner that counts. All seven runners [count].”
Jacquelyn, who wants to run in college but hasn’t decided where yet, thinks Amanda will continue to lead the team in the state series, which begins Oct. 22 at the Class 3A Lyons Township Regional, and rise to the occasion.
“I think she can probably get in the 16s,” Jacquelyn said. “She’ll definitely place good at state, in my eyes, if she continues doing what she’s doing. She’s probably not even at her peak yet.”
Amanda hasn’t set any individual goals for herself.
“Individually I’m not so worried as much this year about my placement,” Amanda said. “I just want to do the best I can. [Getting another personal record] again would be good.”
That would also suit Jacquelyn, who wants to make her final high school season a memorable one by helping the Mustangs get downstate and perhaps finish as the finest team in school history. Downers South’s best showing was fifth in 1985 and 1989, before the state switched to the current three-mile format.
“This summer we changed it up and we started doing more mileage and I guess that what’s been helping us, knowing that if we can run six miles on a daily basis, going three miles on race day will be easier,” Jacquelyn said. “It’s just that mindset that we have.”