Senior Lainey McKinley (pictured above) signaled she’s back to full strength Monday by finishing first at the GCAC meet at Lewis University in Romeoville.

After dealing with injuries most of her cross country career, McKinley became the fifth runner in program history to capture a conference championship, according to Loyola head coach ChrisJon Simon. It was McKinley’s first career victory.

“She had a goal, and she worked hard to get there,” he said. “She was patient and determined. It’s pretty amazing.”

With all seven runners inside the top 20, the Ramblers placed first as a team with 27 points. Fenwick was second (53), and St. Ignatius took third (89).

McKinley broke free from the field before the one-mile mark and never trailed again, crossing the finish line in 17 minutes, 54.40 seconds. She was 34 seconds faster than runner-up and St. Ignatius sophomore Rhiannon O’Keefe (18:28.40).

“It’s rewarding to win,” McKinley said. “I proved something to myself. It’s exciting.”

Senior Annie Foley finished fourth in 18:47.30. It was her first race of the year after battling nagging injuries.

Senior Emily Plodzeen placed fifth (18:55.30), and junior Hannah Kelly was sixth (18:59.70). The next pack included senior Payton Hoag (11th, 19:13.90), sophomore Alex Guzzardo (14th, 19:24.80) and senior Louisa Edwards (19th, 19:40.10).

The Ramblers start the state series Saturday at the Class 3A Niles West Regional.

“We are feeling good,” McKinley said. “Everybody is excited.”

BOYS: Loyola head coach Dan Seeberg considered Monday’s third-place finish at the Catholic League’s meet at Lewis University a victory of sorts.

The Ramblers totaled 66 points to place behind conference champion Marmion (33) and St. Ignatius (41). All seven Loyola runners finished 29th or better.

“We competed again,” Seeberg said. “We have taken our lumps this season, so that was good to see. We were within shouting distance of St. Ignatius.”

Senior Connor Hoag was Loyola’s top runner, taking seventh in 15:24.30. He said he was happy with how he ran.

“It was one of my better races,” he said. “I’ve had trouble with my legs feeling heavy, but my legs felt good, a lot better.”

Loyola’s next four were separated by a little more than nine seconds. Junior Jack Lynch was 12th (15:49.80), junior Eli Miller was 14th (15:55.80), sophomore Alex Owens was 15th (15:57.30) and freshman Spencer Dzyacky was 18th (15:58.90).

Senior Marc Daly took 25th (16:19.10), and junior Ian Gallo finished 29th (16:36.30).

The Ramblers compete at the Class 3A Niles West Regional on Saturday.

“This is a good steppingstone for the next few weeks,” Hoag said.

Photo credit: Melissa Krein/Loyola