CHARLESTON – Members of the Cahokia boys track and field team's 4x400-meter relay exhaled within a few paces of their Kaneland counterparts late Saturday afternoon.
Comanches anchor Tyran Lyons withstood a tremendous charge from the Knights' Nathaniel Kucera, whose closing kick still kept the Knights just short of the championship pace.
Cahokia earned its fourth straight Class 2A state title at Eastern Illinois' O'Brien Stadium, sealing the result by winning the relay in a record time of 3:17.66, .8 seconds ahead of Kaneland. It wasn't lost on either side that the Comanches' 90-84 team victory marked the closest spread during the run.
Score one for the Knights' burgeoning reputation.
"We didn't know. We had no idea," said Comanches senior Marlin Brady, who ran the relay's third leg. "Kaneland's tough, though. They're some tough boys, man. They're tough."
Being called "tough" three times in the same train of thought by the opponents they had strived all season to beat likely won't provide much solace for the Knights.
The program followed a runner-up effort in 2010 by finishing tied for 16th, then 11th and sixth in the three state finals before Saturday.
Burlington Central placed third with a distant 38 points, as an expectant and sun-splashed crowd zeroed in on the Cahokia-Kaneland duel.
"We just came in knowing that we had a mission to do today, and if we just did what we could do, we could make it a show between us and Cahokia," said Kucera, also the anchor of the runner-up 4x800 and sixth in the 400. "They're a fantastic program and we knew coming in that they weren't going to back down."
Kaneland opened the day about as solidly as it could have hoped, winning early titles in the shot put and long jump.
Nate Dyer heaved a personal-best put of 58 feet, 5 1/4 inches before Ben Barnes also established a PR of 23-5 in the long jump.
"The vibe here was just really good coming into today," Dyer said. "Throwing a PR today was huge. Didn't expect it, but it happened."
Barnes channeled similar motivation while also moving instinctually. Cahokia's Jamari Ward, the defending champion in the event, passed on a late attempt after suffering an injury. Acting on the advice of jumps coach Ryan Gierke, one of a handful of coaches paying it forward at his alma mater, Barnes shifted his starting mark back a few paces to build more speed on the straightaway.
"I just had the mind frame that it could be my last jump all year," Barnes said. "Just might as well go out with something special."
Edging Ward only started Knights athletes, coaches and fans on the path of projecting and scoreboard watching.
Kaneland missed an opportunity for more points when the 4x100 was disqualified on the final exchange. A few hours later, the Knights gained ground when Centralia's Kalvin Johnson fell after the final hurdle, allowing Kaneland seniors Dylan Nauert and Brock Robertson to move up to third and fourth, respectively.
BC junior Lucas Ege won the event in a 2A-record 37.34, .86 seconds better than Cahokia standout Gary Hickman. Ege emerged from his junior season unbeaten in the 300 hurdles.
"I kind of wish I had some competition, just because I could go a lot faster and because competition is huge for me," Ege said, "but I can't complain."
Ditto for the Rockets, who relied on scoring from Ege in the 110 hurdles (third) and as part of the 4x100 (fourth) and 4x400 (third).
Senior Casey Matthews accompanied Ege in both relays, while classmate Matt O'Connor, second in the 800, anchored the 4x400.
A sizable contingent of Kaneland fans made themselves heard in the stands, with many traveling Saturday to join the group that also had come for Friday's prelims.
"It's awesome to have our friends and family come down just to support you because they know that we can do something really special," said pole vaulter Dylan Kuipers, who placed fourth and scored along with teammate Dan Evers (ninth).
Ultimately, the Knights wanted to be the top team in 2A, but the post-meet scene of athletes and coaches receiving medals and mugging for photos revealed that jubilation wasn't in short supply.
Head public address announcer Matt Piescinski called the Knights "a big team with big efforts," and they weren't about to disagree.
"We're really deep, a deep team. We're not a senior team," said the outgoing Kucera, a Stanford recruit. "We have a bunch of underclassmen, sophomores and juniors who were running, and they did a great job. So we'll be back next year and hopefully competing still."
Whatever Kaneland's lineup, Cahokia is sure to take note.
St. Charles North senior Erik Miller dueled with defending champion and renowned jumper Jonathan Wells of Grant throughout a tense high jump final.
Miller ultimately finished as runner-up, clearing 6-10 to Wells' 7 feet, but a grin hardly left his face after the competition concluded.
"I thought I had him at 6-10, but great competition. There's a reason he was No. 1 in the nation earlier," Miller said. "I'll take 6-10."
An Illinois State recruit, Miller sought to join older brother Steven, a member of North's winning 4x800 in 2008, as a state champion.
Although his bid fell short, Miller found it hard to allow his shoulders or psyche to sink, too, relishing every moment of a warm final.
"This is the best weather you can jump in," Miller said. "I'd rather it be hot than cold."
Marmion senior Tyler Maryanski finished fifth in the high jump, with classmate Kevin Grahovec placing sixth in the 800, two spots ahead of Geneva's Blaine Bartel.
Maryanski and Grahovec roomed together in the EIU dorms this week.
"We were talking about his race, my event – last night, this morning. We knew what we had to do," Maryanski said. "Talking strategy back and forth. Really just encouraging each other, knowing how well we could do together, and I think we both did pretty well."
Aurora Christian ascended to the top of the 1A podium for the second successive Saturday, scoring 46.5 points to edge Eureka (42) and Tuscola (37) for the team title.
Last weekend, the ACS girls delivered a team championship, too, which helped accelerate the urgency during the boys' final week of workouts.
"They weren't bragging at all," Eagles senior Noah Roberts said. "That kind of gave us motivation to do our best, and they just kind of encouraged us. They weren't bragging, but we definitely had to try to match up to what they did last week."
Roberts joined classmates Noah Hagerty, Grant Schweistal and Johnathan Harrell on runner-up relays in the 4x100 and 4x200. Harrell also placed second in the 400.
Senior Jonah Walker contributed the team's top finish, winning a state title in the discus after his throw of 165-10 clipped the effort of Carthage Illini West's Blaze Murfin by six inches. Aurora Christian officials said it is believed to be the school's first individual state track title.
Along the way, Walker used equipment that would only be familiar to the keenest of track fans. Years ago, Walker's father purchased the discus Winnebago's Alex Thompson used to set the 1A record of 193-2 in 2010.
Walker launched the same discus from his own hands in each of his high school attempts.
"That discus has won first twice at the state meet," Walker said.
Oh, yeah? How's it look?
"It's in OK shape, you know," Walker said. "It's obviously valid. They weighed it and everything."
Mooseheart closed the meet with a title in the 4x400, as the collaborative time of Jeremy Kalicum, Josh Gordon, Brandon Gadson and Wal Khat, 3:24.48, was nearly two seconds faster than the quartet from Teutopolis.
"Me and my teammates, we work hard," said Khat, who also placed fourth in the 800. "We worked hard for it, and we achieved it."
Mooseheart finished in a four-way tie for seventh with 20 points. Other podium-bound athletes included junior Joe Feemorlu, who was seventh in the 110 hurdles in a personal-best 15.22.
Also a wrestling state qualifier earlier this school year, Feemorlu planned to share news of the feat with his father in North Dakota. He said his mother still lives in his native Liberia "as far as I know." Feemorlu left his war-torn homeland for Columbus, Ohio, at age 10 and since has relocated to Mooseheart.
"I very much appreciate it. That's one of the main things that really inspired me to do a lot of sports, so I could get the [Mooseheart] name out there," Feemorlu said. "So other people know that, oh yeah, we're not just so-called orphans. None of us are actually orphans. We're just there for a stable home, basically."