In 2016, Max O’Meara graduated from Downers Grove South High School, leaving his younger cross-country teammates behind. Now, two years later, two of his old teammates are running with him once again.
First-years Stephen Pipilas and Akhil Ghosh, who also ran cross-country at Downers Grove South, joined O’Meara at Loyola this season. O’Meara said having them come to Loyola was a pleasant surprise.
“I would have never expected these two guys back with me in college,” O’Meara said. “I thought we would all kind of go out separate ways. It was really nice to find out we were all going to be running together again.”
In high school, the trio was part of the 2015 cross country team that won both the West Suburban Conference (WSC)-Gold Conference Championship. At conference, Pipilas finished fourth with a time of 15:19 and O’Meara finished eighth with a time of 15:41.2. The team also became Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Class 3A Regional Champions. Pipilas and O’Meara finished in 5th and 6th places, respectively. Their times were less than a second apart.
That same year, the team also finished in 12th place at the IHSA Class 3A State Championships, its highest placement at a state championship since 2002. At the time, Ghosh was in his first year of cross-country so he didn’t compete in the bigger meets, but he was in attendance.
“When [O’Meara] was a senior, it was the first class to kind of get us to break though and get down [to] state as a team,” Downers Grove South cross-country coach Brian Caldwell said. “That kind of set the tone for some of the other guys.”
In 2017, Pipilas and Ghosh lead the team to another WSC-Gold Conference Championship, finishing with 17 points. Pipilas finished in first place with a time of 15:02.5 and Ghosh finished second in 15:11.6, just nine seconds behind his teammate. The team qualified for the IHSA Class 3A State Championships again. Pipilas finished 24th with a time of 14:52 while Ghosh finished 49th with a time of 15:04.
“Last year with [Pipilas] and [Ghosh], we ended up having our best season ever, in school history,” Caldwell said. “They [all] did track and cross-country, so I was coaching them pretty much 10 months a year and then had them in class as well. I got to know them all pretty well.”
Pipilas and Ghosh go back further than just running together in high school; the two grew up blocks from each other. When they were in seventh grade, they began cross-country together and have been running ever since.
In high school, the two got closer. By the end of their senior year, Ghosh broke the school record for the two mile and was faster than Pipilas. Caldwell said he thinks having Pipilas to train with for three years really helped push Ghosh.
“All three of them were a joy to coach,” Caldwell said. “[They are] just great people [and] hard workers. If the rest of my career is filled with guys like those three, it’s going to be fulfilling. I was lucky to be able to coach those guys, watch them develop and I’m excited to see them continue to see them do great things at the next level.”
O’Meara, Ghosh and Pipilas spend time together off the track doing homework and playing volleyball. They all said having somebody they know at Loyola makes being here fun.
“I was kind of surprised that he ended up choosing the same school I did,” Pipilas said. “I think it just helps me, especially with running and everything. He pushes me [and] I push him. It’s the same vibe toward[s] each other.”
Loyola assistant cross-country coach Mircea Bogdan said he began recruiting Pipilas at the beginning of his senior year, while Ghosh didn’t start to talk with Loyola until around April. Ghosh was also looking at University of Iowa and University of Illinois at Chicago. He said he didn’t make his choice to come to Loyola solely because his two former teammates were there, but it was always in the back of his mind.
“Ultimately, I decided on Loyola because I fell in love with the campus,” Ghosh said. “I loved being in Chicago and I believed that this team had some serious potential as a cross-country team to do some big things.”
Since the three have known each other for about five years, they know how to bring out the best in each other, according to O’Meara.
“[In high school, Pipilas and Ghosh] were so talented you had to work your hardest to keep improving,” O’Meara said. “I knew they would bring the same kind of atmosphere into this team. I already see the improvement in our team culture … I think that reminded me of what happened in high school and I would like to see that happen here as well.”
Bogdan said the runners love to compete against each other, which helps make them better. He also said having younger guys who are faster will help push the upperclassmen to improve.
“When it comes to race day and the actual race, those guys fight,” Bogdan said. “In terms of giving it their best, they love to compete against each other, and they will not give up an inch against each other. I absolutely loved how much competition they bring between them, which is healthy for all of them and it’s healthy for us because that [helps] the numbers in terms of time.”
Both the men’s and the women’s cross country teams are scheduled to travel to Illinois State University Sept. 14, where they’ll compete in the Illinois State Invitational.