Retired Fenwick cross country coach John Polka (center), with the Friars' 2021 state-championship plaque, is flanked by assistant coach Dan Wnek (left) and head coach Dave Rill, who Polka recruited to Oak Park in the 1980s. | Provided by Fenwick High School/Scott Hardesty

John Polka is the reason Fenwick High School has a cross country program. When the now-retired longtime biology teacher was hired at Fenwick in 1966, he saw the school had no cross country team, so he created it and coached the boys team until 2009 – 43 years in all.

While he coached a slew of successful runners throughout the years, the one achievement that escaped Polka was the Friars’ placing as a team the state’s top three. The Friars boys finally accomplished that feat this fall, not only placing in the top three but winning the IHSA Class 2A state cross country title.

One of the team’s top runners at the state finals was senior Grayden Rill, who led Fenwick with an eighth-place overall finish. Rill’s father, Fenwick head coach Dave Rill, is a 1987 graduate of Fenwick who ran under Polka.

While Polka hasn’t coached since 2009, he continues to serve as an IHSA official and, as he had since 1972, Polka was working as an official at the Nov. 6 state meet at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

After the race, Dave Rill and assistant coach Dan Wnek presented Polka with a state championship medal in recognition of Polka’s decades of service to Fenwick and boys cross country, bringing the former coach to tears. Polka was also present at a school assembly recognizing the cross country team’s achievement.

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