The 1997 Salem Wildcats boys cross country team was loaded and ready for the fall campaign with six of their top seven runners returning from a very successful ‘96 season. The question that remained was who would step up to fill the shoes of graduated number one, Chris Owen.
The Wildcats started the season by losing the Murphysboro Invitational on a tiebreaker to the Mt. Vernon Rams, with each team scoring 41 points. The highlight of the race was the emerging of junior Nathan Purcell as the number one runner for the Wildcats and the individual race winner, setting a new course record. Charlie Stanley, Shane Kelly, Tommy Oliverio and Aaron Duke rounded out the counters for the Cats in that first meet.

Heading west to the Granite City Invitational gave the Cats their revenge on Mt. Vernon by taking the team victory with a score of 51 to the Rams’ 56. Once again, the men were lead by Purcell, Tommy Oliverio stepped up to the number two spot with a time of 16:03. Following was the tight pack of Shane Kelly, Henry Alers and Charlie Stanley in times of 16:14, 16:16 and 16:19 respectfully.

Herrin Invitational fell in the middle of that next week and the Wildcats were able to show their depth by winning the meet while resting their top group. The team victory was lead by Jeff Smith, followed by Shannon Owen, Aaron Duke, Josh McDonald and Brian Diefenbach.

The weekend found the Wildcats at the Mt. Vernon Invitational where they earned first place finishes in 5 of the 7 flighted races. Wins came from Purcell, Stanley, Kelly, Owen and Smith. Oliverio was second in his race, while Alers picked up a third. With a combined team score of 10 points, the Wildcats were 14 points better than runner up Centralia and this rounded out the first two weeks of an already very successful season.

Next, the Wildcats headed north to the 8 team Downers Grove Invitational where the men dominated the scoring with 21 points. Salem took five of the top seven spots in the race and all seven of the Cat’s runners finished in the top eleven. “Our boys ran extremely well. It was just a great team effort and that is what it takes,” said Coach Kirby Phillips.
That following Monday, the Cats returned south for the annual tri-meet with local rivals Centralia and Mt. Vernon. The team kept its winning streak alive with a 9-point victory over Centralia. Purcell remained unbeaten, Henry Alers ran number two for the Cats followed by Kelly in the third spot.

The Wildcats then traveled to Springfield where they continued to bring home the gold, with another win against the tough Central Illinois competition. The 72 points team score was 21 points better than Chicago Bensenville Fenton, the number 4 ranked team in the Chicago area.

The biggest challenge of the year lay ahead with the power packed Peoria Invitational next on the schedule, a big test for the team and an even bigger test for Cats number one Nathan Purcell. The team race was dominated by state powerhouse Elmhurst York with 32 points, and the Wildcats bought home a fourth place finish in the 39 team race. Purcell led the way with a 2nd place finish overall and he was followed by Alers, Kelly, Oliverio and Stanley to round out the Top 5, while Josh McDonald and Shannon Owen finished in the 6th and 7th spots for the Cats. The following week the Wildcats placed 2nd by one point to Pontiac at the Metamora Invitational rounding out their regular season schedule.

The Wildcats began the post season by winning the 16th straight NEC Championship and then headed to Centralia’s Foundation Park for the IHSA 2A Regional meet where the men placed five counters in the top twelve that morning to bring home the title with just 38 points.

The only thing between the Cats and another trip to the big dance was the IHSA 2A Sectional at Decatur. “Salem posted an almost unthinkable score of 71 points to win the meet.” Bruce Hixon, Salem Times Commoner sports editor penned of the Sectional Champions in the local paper. Purcell just missed the individual Sectional Championship by 2 seconds; senior Henry Alers was 7th, followed by Stanley, McDonald and Oliverio. Next in line came Jeff Smith and Shane Kelly. And the Cats were headed north again!

One week later the Wildcats found themselves at the ever familiar Peoria Detweiller Park and the IHSA 2A state championships. The 1997 Wildcats boys cross country team had high hopes but realistic expectations for the state race, looking to make school best finishes from both the team and individual runner in Purcell. Those hopes exceeded all expectations when Purcell ran to the first ever Top 25 place for the SCHS Wildcats crossing the finish line in 7th with a blazing time of 14:36 for the 3 mile course. A mere 6 seconds separated Purcell from 3rd place. He was followed by Alers in 73rd (51st among team runners), McDonald at 97th (68th), Smith in 131st (98th) and Stanley rounded out the counters in 145th (110th). Tommy Oliverio and Shane Kelly finished out the team for the Wildcats, who ran to a best-ever 13th place finish for Salem.

The 1997 Salem Wildcats Cross Country team led by Coach Kirby Phillips included Nathan Purcell, Henry Alers, Josh McDonald, Jeff Smith, Charles Stanley, Tommy Oliverio, Shane Kelly,