Nathaniel Kucera applied to Stanford in the fall without a safety school in his back pocket.
Even as other universities coveted the Kaneland track standout, he kept a distance because he pined for the palm trees of Palo Alto, Calif.
That’s the quiet confidence in Kucera, whose ascent with the Knights hit its most recent high when he anchored Kaneland’s Class 2A state champion 4x800-meter relay last spring. Two weeks later, Kucera dazzled with the top individual 800 at the Midwest Distance Gala, and appeared on Stanford’s radar, setting off a recruitment that culminated with his humbling acceptance this week.
“It was a huge shock, a huge relief and a wave of excitement to know I could get into such a school with that academic regard and be able to run,” Kucera said.
And run he will, just not before he does a few more things for the Knights. Or lobbies to.
Kucera approached Kaneland coach Eric Baron shortly after his 1:51.33 won the 800 at the Midwest Distance Gala at Benedictine in June. Kucera came with his customary thank-yous, as well as some urgency.
If need be, the middle distance maven offered his services in the shot put, the 3,200 – whatever might land the Knights a team trophy in 2014. The 4x800 title and a runner-up turn in the 4x400 still pointed Kaneland to sixth.
“That goes a long way to what kind of member he’s gong to be at Stanford for that team,” said Baron, who also coached Kucera as Chad Clarey’s cross country assistant. “Just talking with him, it’s totally evident that team comes before himself. Those are things we as coaches always try to get in our athletes, and it’s always fulfilling to see it happen.”
Kucera ranks 18th in his class of 340 with a 4.04 GPA on a 4.0 scale. The prospective business student flexed his verbal skills en route to earning admittance to Stanford, writing three entrance essays. Themes included a letter to his future roommate and a life event that motivated or helped him intellectually.
Give him a pen or a laptop right now and Kucera could produce volumes about the ongoing support from the Kaneland community through the years. As Baron noted, “this is a pretty big day for us as a school, too.”
“I’m just really excited and blessed to be able to have this opportunity,” Kucera said. “I started track in eighth grade and had a huge spark my freshman year, and I want to thank everyone who has helped me.”
Stanford distance coach John Oliver called Kucera regarding his acceptance this week. Kucera still had been casually considering other schools that showed recruiting interest – namely Penn State, Kentucky and Wisconsin – as he awaited word.
With the Cardinal competing at an indoor meet in Seattle this weekend, Kucera must wait a few days before conferring with coaches about the final specifics of his scholarship.
What is clear: His commitment adds to an impressive list of Knights collegians under Baron, including classmate Kyle Carter (Southern Illinois) and recent graduates Taylor Andrews (Army), Miki Marin (Eastern Illinois), Logan Markuson (Minnesota) and Tommy Whittaker (Saint Louis).
“I was given this opportunity,” Kucera said, “and I jumped on this.”
Strang, Knights ready to start indoor season: Kaneland senior Sydney Strang hailed Wednesday’s season-opening girls indoor track meet at Dundee-Crown as a chance to finally get moving.
Harrowing winter weather has limited most workouts to treadmills or the indoor track at the Vaughan Center in Aurora, although the Knights always make do.
“We just do the best we can every day,” Strang said, “work with what we’ve got.”
A modest approach has helped steer Strang near the top of the Knights’ middle distance lineup while also landing her a spot in Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne’s NCAA Division I program beginning next season.
Even Strang’s rationale for choosing IPFW is even-keeled.
“I just see myself becoming the best version of myself there,” she said.
Strang’s older sister, Andie, delivered a positive review of the IPFW facilities while competing there with St. Joseph (Ind.) around this time last season.
Strang added the Mastodons to her list of possible suitors, sent an email to coaches and gathered a homey atmosphere at the school from that interaction onward. She confirmed those feelings during her first campus visit in September.
Her verbal commitment in October and last week’s national signing day ceremony at Kaneland only widened Strang’s smile about her development in a sport she all but joined on a whim.
Credit Andie – three years her senior – with an assist, though.
“Really in sixth grade, [track is] all you really can do,” Sydney Strang said. “I’ve always liked running and once I saw her doing it, I figured I would try it, too.”
As a junior, Strang helped Kaneland win the Class 2A Burlington Central Sectional. At state, she anchored the Knights’ ninth-place 4x800-meter relay that opened with Amanda Lesak, Aislinn Lodwig and Jessica Kucera.
With several experienced teammates back in the fold alongside her, Strang likes Kaneland’s chances as meets get under way.
“We’re just enjoying the season,” Strang said. “Having some fun.”
Finding their wind: Many track coaches coax football players into the sport for conditioning purposes.
Kaneland senior Gary Koehring, a linebacker committed to NCAA Division II St. Cloud (Minn.) State, counts himself among that fraternity.
“I’m not there to score the team any points,” Koehring, part of the Knights’ rotation in the 100 and 200 meters, said recently. “I’m just there to stay in shape.”