Caitlin Bitunjac usually has the same in-race routine.
The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) senior can’t help but think about how tired she is as she navigates the three-mile races.
But, running on her home course at a regional, this race was different.
“Usually as I’m running I’m thinking about how tired I am,” Bitunjac said. “This time, it was just about winning. Once I was with the Oak Forest girl for the first mile, my goal was to be in front of her. I ended up doing it and felt really good about the race.”
Bitunjac delivered a dominant performance on Oct. 24 at the Class 2A CHSAS regional, pulling away for a first-place finish. She completed the race in 19:55, a full minute ahead of Oak Forest sophomore Mia Nutile (20:58).
The individual regional title is believed to be the first in program history for a CHSAS cross-country runner. Finishing second in the team standings, the Cyclones will also advance to the Peoria Notre Dame sectional on Oct. 31.
The program history also provided a well-deserved present on her 18th birthday.
“Oh wow, I’m so surprised. I’m really happy,” Bitunjac said. “Winning was actually a surprise for me. I really wanted to win it. This was the big present. This really made my day.”
Bitunjac made her move after the first mile, progressively pulling away from Nutile on the course that wound its way through the CHSAS campus. By the time she made the final turn toward the finish chute, Bitunjac had time to spare.
Also scoring for the Cyclones were junior Natalie Montenez (10th, 22:49) and freshmen Grace Sullivan (11th, 22:50), Madeline Bitunjac (15th, 23:17) and Tylar Smith (20th, 23:51).
Sophomores Jocelyn Hillesheim (29th, 26:30) and Anjellette Zinnerman (33rd, 28:40) also competed for CHSAS.
The girls squad wasn’t the only one posting a strong regional showing with the CHSAS boys team advancing five runners as individuals to this week’s sectional with sophomore Cody Dziallo (29th, 18:43) leading the way.
Junior Darion Caldwell (32nd, 19:32), freshman Alexander Bratton (34th, 19:52), junior John Green (36th, 19:56) and freshman Antonio Contreras (39th, 20:29) also advanced as individuals.
With the success of both boys and girls programs, Bitunjac said the Cyclones are heading in the right direction in Coach Jeff Niemiec’s second season at the school.
“All I know is when I’m gone, CHSAS will do really good things,” Bitunjac said. “I’m so proud of the team. One of our girls dropped 2 minutes and set a new PR. That’s a really big accomplishment.”
The Mustangs finished fourth in the team standings (86 points) and advanced as a team to the sectional. Junior Mya Ortiz paced EP with her 12th-place finish (22:50).
Sophomores Kristen Smith (17th, 23:23) and Katherine Beyer (21st, 24:20), junior Angelina Obregon (25th, 25:19) and sophomore Audrey Bobel (26th, 25:39) scored for EP.