We have had great teams in the past. In fact, we have had great teams that won State trophies and others that came very close. But this season, we took a step that we knew that we were ready to take. After the Sectional Meet, I reminded the team that we had won the Indoor and Outdoor Conference Titles, the Sectional Title and remarked that we only had one meet left to win.
A Track and Field Brotherhood
Before we left for the State Meet, we had our traditional send off breakfast and right away, I could tell that this meet was going to be different. I was unable to put my finger on it at the time, but I would later realize that our athletes were all intermingled and were not separated by their normal training groups. This pattern would continue during the entire weekend. When the athletes were having a meal, they sat together, talked, laughed and gelled as a team. When there was downtime, they played video games together, helped each other prepare for their events and supported each other in a way that only a group on a mission can have.
I told the team that I did not know what the outcome of the meet would be. All I asked of them was that we would put up a "good fight". If we did this, we could be proud of what we had accomplished regardless of the scores and marks.
Belief in something bigger than an individual unites people. When we planned for the State Meet back in April, we never mentioned individual event titles. We hoped that some would happen, but we placed our focus on the team title that we were striving for. This hope started a mission that would link a group of 22 athletes into a group of brothers that they will never forget.
Trust the Process and Compete!
One of the hardest things about a sport like Track and Field is that you must be patient while you work hard and develop your skills. The benefits of training will not come overnight and must trust that when the time comes that you and your team will be in the position to compete to the best of your ability.
As we stepped out onto the track for the preliminaries, it was obvious that the process had made us strong and ready. Norman Dong (Sr.) got us started and jumped 20' 11.5" in the Long Jump. For his first time ever in the State Meet, Norman hit the board all three time and competed. While Norman did not make finals, he began to set the tone that this meet was just like any other. Ife Oketona (Sr.) would show the State that his marks at the Sectional Meet were no fluke and jumped 23' 6.25" to lead all long jumpers going into Day 2. This mark would now replace his own school record from the Sectional Meet. Things were starting to look even better.
In the Pole Vault, Alex Kiefer (Jr.) was suffering from an injured back from an incident last week during the Sectional Meet, but still was able to jump 13' 6" and just missed qualifying for Day 2 by one bar. Despite not making finals, Alex showed he was willing to suffer through anything to advance the team. Many athletes would simply give up when they are in pain, but Alex saw it through to the end. Alex is already thinking about next season.
Matt Appel (So.) came to the State Meet for the first time and won his flight of the Shot Put with a mark of 54' 7.5", unfortunately, missing the finals by one place. Undeterred, Matt returned to the discus for some solid throws, marking 152' 2" as his best. While it was again not good enough for finals, Matt had stepped into the ring each time and was not intimidated by the competition. Athletes often need a trip to State before they figure out that they can compete, but Matt showed that he was ready to compete with the best.
The Triple Jump saw Danny Osafo (Sr.) put up a mark of 44' 1.5". This was the second best mark that Danny has ever had. While it was not enough to make the finals, Danny would embody the enthusiasm of this team through the next day. Mac Mitchell (Sr.) would jump 46' 0.75" in a later flight to position himself as one of the top triple jumpers and qualify for the Day 2. Mac had a determination to him that let us know that he was ready to put up some points. During this weekend, Mac emerged as a leader and guide to his fellow teammates. To him, this was as important as anyone. As we moved to the running events, it was clear that we could score in two horizontal jumps and that our athletes were ready.
Moving the track, the 4 x 800 m relay team of distance runners Tyler Bombacino (Sr.), Ryan Kennedy (Sr.), Danny Winek (Sr.), and Dakota Getty (Sr.) showed that we could do something special again. Tyler ran a solid opening leg, something that we knew that we could count on given his experience on this relay last season. As he passed the baton to Ryan, we were in good position and Ryan took over the race in the last 300 m and began to pull away. Danny took over and held back slightly, knowing that he still needed to run the 1600 m later in the day. Finally, Dakota ran a season best time for his leg and held off an advancing Batavia team to take the section win and an automatic qualification to Day 2. The team's time of 7:48.28 was over 9 seconds faster than their Sectional Meet time and was the best of the day.
Donovan Turner (Jr.) would keep the qualifications for Day 2 moving as he ran away with his preliminary heat of the 110 m High Hurdles. His time of 14.04 breaks his own school record. Donovan showed great purpose and composure as he kept pulling away during the race and remarked later that he could have gone faster. Later in the meet, Donovan would also qualify in the 300 m Intermediate Hurdles despite losing his rhythm over the seventh hurdle and nearly falling. Donovan's ability to press on even when things do not go perfectly helped us advance another event to the finals with a time of 39.29.
When Myles Gascon (Sr.) got into the blocks for the 100 m Dash, he knew that he had a job to do. His job was simply to make finals so that he could score points the next day. Myles showed that he was ready and despite two other runners in his heat pulling away from him, he pushed through to the end and captured the last spot in the finals with a time of 10.89. At this point, Myles would simply need to complete the race to score a point, but we knew that he was ready for more.
In the 1600 m, Danny Winek (Sr.) ran another smart race like he did at the Sectional Meet with a hard kick and finished in a pack that the camera needed to sort out. When the dust settled, Danny took 3rd in his heat to qualify for Day 2 and was able to beat many of the best runners in the State. Danny was now in a great position to put up more points in the finals.
In the final event of Day 1, the 4 x 400 m relay team of Kel Foley (Jr.), Kai Larson (Sr.), Patrick Hoffman (So.), and Donovan Turner (Jr.) were ready to show the State that they belonged. Our Sectional Meet seed time was not even close to the top 9 needed to make it to the finals. However, Kel got us started with an early charge from lane 9 and then Kai put us right into the top grouping, only a short distance back from the lead. Patrick ran his fastest 400 m ever to keep us in great position and then Donovan closed us out in a time of 3:20.85, easily making finals and living to race another day. This group showed that rankings do not matter and were willing to go for it on each leg.
As we entered Day 2, we were tired after a full day of competing hard. but we knew that were not finished doing the job that we set out to do. We had qualified 9 events to Day 2, Homewood-Flossmoor had qualified 11 and Plainfield North had the potential to score over 40 points with Marcellus Moore and the rest of their team. Three teams were in the hunt for the title.
In the field events, we knew that if we scored big, we would be in a position to take home a trophy. Ife Oketona (Sr.) managed score 8 points with a 2nd place in the Long Jump, only losing one place in the finals. Ife went from an athlete that was near to the State Qualifying Mark to All-State in a matter of a week and put us on the scoreboard. His final jump of 23' 8.5" would again break his own school record!
Mac Mitchell (Sr.) kept us scoring in the Triple Jump with a 6th place and another 4 points for the team. While Mac lost one place in the finals, we now had scored 12 points in the field events and the job was getting done. Unfortunately, Mac scratched a jump that would have been over 47', showing that he has the ability to do some amazing things at the next level. In the past week, Mac has improved his marks by over 2 feet!
The 4 x 800 m relay team of Tyler Bombacino (Sr.), Ryan Kennedy (Sr.), Danny Winek (Sr.), and Dakota Getty (Sr.) took to the track to defend their number one position. Tyler was running another solid leg when in the final turn, someone tripped up a whole pack of runners, including Tyler. Tyler's great athleticism kept himself upright and charged to the finish. Unfortunately, this stumble had cost us quite a few places. Ryan took the baton and ran one of the most perfect 800 m legs that we have seen. With great patience, he caught up to the pack and then kicked in hard to put us back in the mix. Danny took the baton and continued the move up and got us right up into the lead. Even though this was now his third race, Danny was still racing hard. As Dakota took over, Sandburg had Dylan Jacobs, one of the top distance runners in the country, on the end of their relay. Dakota ran a smart and strong race with the fastest 800 m mark of the season and closed out a second place finish and 8 more points for the team. We were up to 20 and a pattern seemed to be emerging.
Zach Kinne (Jr.) would be next in the 3200 m. In what was a completely loaded field, Zach was ready to show us how strong that he had become this spring. The race began to separate and Zach pushed to the lead, even passing State Cross Country Champion Danny Kilrea from Lyons in the last 800 m. Zach charged hard for the finish but Kilrea's kick got him right before the finish line. As Zach collapsed at the end of his race, he became a symbol of how much effort our athletes were putting in to make this happen for the team. Zach risked places by trying to take the championship and garner more points for the team. So far, we did not have a single State Champion, but we did have 28 points.
The 110 m High Hurdles would see a similar result. Donovan Turner (Jr.) was tired from racing three events the day before, but kept pushing through. Despite a rough start, he charged through the crowd to take 2nd with a time of 14.20 and secured another 8 points. The pattern continued and we now had 36 points. Again we saw athletes willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
The 100 m Dash final was what Myles Gascon (Sr.) had prepared for years to do and now was his chance. With an incredible start, he surged forward and found a rhythm that would having him passing runners as the finish line drew closer. In the end, Myles would take 6th in a time of 10.82 and add another 4 points to the total. At this point, we had 40 points, our highest total ever, which meant that we were certain that a trophy would come back to Neuqua Valley. The only question was, which one?
A tired Donovan Turner (Jr.) returned only about an hour after running his 1st race of the day but 4th race overall to run his 5th, the 300 m Intermediate Hurdles. Donovan powered through one of the toughest races in Track and Field to take 6th in a time of 39.80, adding 4 more points to the mix for a total of 44.
For his 4th race of the two day meet, Danny Winek (Sr.) returned in the 1600 m, and another loaded field. Danny ran smart and did not get caught up in a race that went out hard, but kept working through the ranks of runners until he got to a 9th place finish and added 1 more point for a total of 45. Danny finished up a career full of unfortunate injuries as a two time All-State athlete.
At this point, there were three events left in the meet, the High Jump, the 200 m dash and the 4 x 400 m relay. We were only in one of these races and Homewood-Flossmoor and Plainfield North were in two. Homewood-Flossmoor was leading with 47 points, and Plainfield North had 30. In the High Jump, Homewood-Floosmoor did not score and Plainfield North took 7th, making their total 33. As we watched the 200 m, Marcellus Moore from Plainfield North won the event bringing their total to 43. Grant Floyd from Homewood-Flossmoor would take 9th, making their total 48. Now, we knew that we were going to take 2nd at the very least. Homewood-Flossmoor would have the painful experience of watching an event that they were not in decide the meet. If we took worse than 7th place in the last event, the meet was lost. However, we had a mostly fresh team ready to go.
As the 4 x 400 m relay began, they knew what was on the line. Kel Foley (Jr.) charged out hard and in the last stretch, went to his arms to put us right into the mix. Kai Larson (Sr.) sprinted out the first curve and chased like he always does to bring us within reach of the lead. Patrick Hoffman (So.) took the baton and moved hard along the back stretch, taking the lead and then giving everything he had to finish his leg in the top 3. Donovan Turner (Jr.) racing with a fury inspired by earlier disappointments, finished off the relay in 3rd place in a time of 3:21.04 adding 7 points to the total and capturing the team title!
The moment felt surreal and our team erupted. Parents, coaches, athletes, and fans joined in high fives, hugs and shared tears that our good fight had paid off. All of the preparation came down to this moment when the Neuqua Valley 4 x 400 m, one of the most certain things in life, brought the final act to a close. Dr. McBride had many other duties to see to on this weekend, with graduation and other happenings, but felt compelled to be there as he sensed something special was going to happen. It did. And with it came the validation that our program was the best this season and the legacy of a special team.
The feelings of winning the State Title are confusing. There was elation, there was a rush of energy and there were tears. It might be strange to cry at such a happy event, but it was a common experience for athletes and coaches on this night. For myself, winning a State Championship was amazing, but winning it with my sons on the team was one of the best experiences of my life. All I ever wanted to so was share my passion for this sport with them.
As we talked with the other coaches from Homewood-Floosmoor and Plainfield North, I saw in their faces the feeling of disappointment that we felt when we had fallen short in the past. I truly know their pain. Even if it is just high school sports, when you care about something, it hurts when it does not go as hoped. However, it was an honor to compete against these teams with such amazing coaches and athletes. These are programs we admire and both of these programs competed with class and we look forward to competing against them and the rest of the State next season.
Finally, I hope that there is a young athlete on our team that felt the inspiration that such a moment could bring. I hope that they said to themselves that they could do it too. If so, make the commitment to be there in one year when you can make your own legacy.
Complete results can be found at the link below.