CHARLESTON – Aiming to demoralize the rest of the field early is one way to tackle a 4x800-meter race.
Cahokia adopted that approach at Saturday's Class 2A boys state track and field finals, and for a time, it seemed safe. Lead leg Marlon Brady surged to a sizable initial edge, prompting oohs from the crowd and the hyperbole of O'Brien Stadium track announcer Matt Piescinski. That only left 2,400 meters to a title, or so it seemed.
Through it all, Burlington Central seniors Mike Gulik, Joe Gannon and Clint Kliem knew better. All sophomore Matt O'Connor had to do was keep the quartet close in the opening leg, and when he did, the Rockets channeled their training to recover.
Start strong but smart, then finish stronger. Though the strategy lacked flash, it ultimately added up to a personal-record time of 7:48.31 and the Rockets' first state title in the three-class era.
"We've been training for endurance all year and we've been training for consistency all year," said Gannon, who ran the third leg. "The past couple weeks, we've really tried to work on our speed and turnover on the last 200 meters. I think the combination of a little bit of endurance and that quick twitch at the end there helped us run strong throughout the whole race."
Central claimed its first relay title since the 2003 4x800 won in Class A and first overall state title since Chris Wesson's triumph in the 800 a year later.
About six hours after its 4x800 championship, the BC group of Ben Damisch, Ryan Olsen, Kliem and Gulik pushed Cahokia's top-seeded 4x400 team to the brink. Gulik closed the gap on Comanches anchor Darren Payton to within a few meters down the stretch, but Cahokia eventually edged Central to defend its state title, 3:19.09 to 3:20.13.
"We would have loved to get, I guess, the double upset, but you can't complain about the day we had," said Kliem, who also finished sixth in the 800. "Everyone did their part, and we executed it perfectly."
Patience was the key in the 4x800. Gulik overtook his Comanches counterpart late in the second leg before Gannon followed a similar path one leg later. Opening about a 20-meter lead for Kliem, the anchor, Gannon completed his first sub-2:00 split on a sweltering late morning in which the Rockets flirted with Springfield's 2010 state record (7:47.92).
Runner-up Cahokia, which claimed its second straight 2A team title, finished in 7:51.28
In Class 1A, Aurora Christian's Billy Howorth, Jake Gehman, Nate Jensen and Dillon Howorth added a second title for the Kane County Chronicle-area with a gold medal in the 4x400.
Things looked bleak earlier in the week after usual anchor Johnathan Harrell suffered a fall at school and was unable to compete. But that's when Dillon Howorth, a fellow sophomore, accepted the challenge of stepping in to run the final leg. The state prelims and finals were just the third and fourth 400-meter intervals he had run all season.
The top five teams in the late-charging field finished within 0.7 seconds. Howorth admitted to feeling pressure after guiding the Eagles to their 3:24.15 finish.
"It is a lot, but I prayed about it, and God brought me through it," Howorth said. "And I gave it all I got for Him."
Geneva's Peter Archibald narrowly missed a chance at a third state title for the area, finishing second in the 3A 800 behind a staggering Michal Filipczak of Maine South.
Filipczak (1:52.01) collapsed over the finish line with a hard-charging Archibald (1:52.60) in immediate pursuit. Archibald had stayed back on Filipczak before making his move in the final 250 meters.
"The third turn, I was feeling good, I was driving. Then probably about 10 meters into it, I just got that tightening up sensation and I was starting to strain a little bit," Archibald said. "But I'm happy with it. It was an overall great race."
Fellow senior Jake Mazanke of St. Charles East took third in 1:54.25, one spot behind his new close friend and Loyola of Chicago roommate.
Mazanke and Archibald had spoken nary a word and never raced in the 800 before the May 4 Kane County meet at West Aurora, but staged memorable duels that night and at the conference and sectional meets that instantly brought them together.
"Peter's a great friend of mine, and I think our chemistry is already good when we're competitors," Mazanke said, "but when we're teammates it's going to be amazing. We'll spend all our time together, we'll be good friends and we're going to do really well next year. Loyola's got a great middle distance program, so I think we're just going to carry it on."
St. Charles North senior Oshay Hodges battled a recurring injury to his left, jumping, heel to place sixth in the 3A high jump (6-8) and 12th in the triple jump (45-5).
O'Brien Stadium, which will undergo summer renovations to its astroturf field and famed sky blue track, figures to house several more Hodges highlights. Hodges recently committed to Eastern Illinois after considering other schools such as Arkansas, Arkansas State and Coastal Carolina.
"They appreciated me [at Eastern]. They needed me more than, I guess, I needed them," Hodges said. "So that, to me, showed me I should do that and come here."
Ben Rogers, a Geneva senior, closed his jumping career with personal bests in the 3A triple jump (fourth, 46-9) and long jump (sixth, 22-10).
Removing his customary competition snack from his bag – a peanut butter Snickers bar – Rogers relaxed while reflecting on a somewhat accidental route to two state medals.
Competing in track to stay sharp for his primary focus, football, the Cornell wide receiver-to-be was idling in the Batavia fieldhouse last spring when a coach recruited him to replace a triple jump teammate at the last minute.
"I never imagined I was going to be up here competing with the best, stepping on the podium," Rogers said. "I'm definitely satisfied."
In the 3A high jump, Marmion senior Pete Stefanski added a second-successive runner-up finish, clearing 6-10.
Kaneland's crop of five 2A finalists was led by the third-place 4x200-meter relay of Dylan Pennington, Brandon Bishop, Brandon Cottier and Sean Carter.
Cottier's solid third leg helped the Knights (1:29.89) challenge champion Glenbard South and runner-up Cahokia as Carter, the senior anchor, grabbed the baton.
"I saw a spot, I saw an opening, and I just imagined I could totally eat these kids up, just like I did in prelims," said Cottier, who also was part of the sixth-place 4x100 with Bishop and Carter. "I just got that opening and got to top speed, and I came after them knowing there was no way I was letting my team down."
Sophomore Dylan Nauert also was a double medalist for the Knights, taking sixth in the 300 hurdles. Carter, whose younger brother, Kyle, was part of Kaneland's ninth-place 4x800, earned a third medal with a seventh-place run in a jam-packed 200.
Champion Jamal McNeeley of Kelvyn Park (22.0) edged teammate Brian Carter (22.33) for the title, but the entire field was separated by just 1.3 seconds.