The 1998 Salem Wildcats cross country team earned the distinction of the best season in the program’s history at the time of their induction into the Salem High School Hall of Fame.

Salem won six invitational meets with first place finishes at Murphysboro, Granite City, Mt. Vernon, Peoria Notre Dame, Springfield and Metamora. Salem’s depth showed when it finished second at the Herrin Invitational without using its top seven runners. The Wildcats other regular season meet was a seventh place finish at the Crete Monee Invitational.

Led by individual champion Nathan Purcell, Salem won the North Egypt Conference Meet held at Fairfield with a team score of 19 points. Fairfield’s Nathan Atkins went into the NEC meet undefeated on the season, but Purcell’s first place time of 14:49 beat Atkins by 17 seconds.

All seven Salem runners finished in the top ten at the NEC Meet, as Jeff Smith was third, Tommy Oliverio was fourth, Charlie Stanley was fifth, Josh McDonald was sixth, Brian Diefenback was eighth and Bucky Shuler was tenth.

Salem began the postseason path by winning the Class AA Mt. Vernon Regional with a decisive 25-66 margin over runner-up Centralia.

The Wildcats had four of the top five runners led by Purcell’s individual championship in a time of 15:29. Smith was third at 16:07, Stanley was fourth at 16:08, Oliverio was fifth at 16:13 and Kelly was the final counter in 12th place at 16:41. Also competing were McDonald in 13th place at 16:42 and Diefenbach was 19th at 16:55.

The Wildcats turned in arguably their best day of the season when they won the Centralia Sectional. Salem won the tough 20-team field by a 78-point margin (50-128) over runner-up Springfield.

Purcell followed his individual regional championship by winning the sectional by 22 seconds over his closest competitor. Smith was ninth at 16:03, Oliverio was tenth at 16:07, Stanley was 14th at 16:13, and Kelly was the final counter in 24th place at 16:33. Other participants were McDonald in 27th place at 16:38 and Diefenback in 127th place at 18:07.

Salem ended its season with its best ever finish at the state meet held at Peoria’s Detweiller Park, as it finished ninth with 242 points.

Purcell, who became the first Salem runner to crack the top ten at the state meet in 1997 when he finished seventh, came back with a ninth place finish in a time 14:44.

The other counters for the Wildcats were Stanley in 44th place at 15:19, Smith in 68th place at 15:31, Oliverio in 69th place at 15:31 and Kelly in 145th place at 16:07. The other state runners were McDonald in 147th place at 16:08 and Diefenbach in 174th place at 16:21.

Five of Salem’s seven state runners, Purcell, Stanley, Smith, Oliverio and Kelly, were seniors. McDonald and Diefebach were juniors.