Beecher distance runner Grant Nykaza knows what it feels like to be a champion. As a freshman and sophomore, Nykaza was part of Beecher's 3,200-meter relay team that won back-to-back Class 1A IHSA state championships.
It was a thrilling feeling to win a state title with teammates, one that Nykaza said he can't imagine being topped as an athlete.
Nykaza also knows what if feels like to come close, but not win a big race. Last year, he finished second at state in the 1,600 to three-time state champion Justin Rehfeldt of Rockford Christian, and this fall, Nykaza finished second in the Class 1A state cross-country meet to Monticello's Steve Schroeder.
Grant's older brother, Griffin, wants Grant to remember that feeling of disappointment at being a runner-up, and to use that as incentive heading into this weekend's Class 1A state track and field championships at Eastern Illinois University, which begin Thursday. Griffin, who ran with Grant on those state championship relay teams, now runs cross country and track for Illinois State.
"The week leading up to a state meet always makes me a little nervous, but it is an excited type of nervousness," Nykaza said. "It is exciting to be running at this competitive level, but I've just got to try and stay relaxed and run there like it is any other meet."
Nykaza, a junior, will enter the state meet with the best qualifying time among 1A runners. Nykaza ran his best time of the season Friday at the Seneca Sectional, where he posted a time of 4 minutes, 17.36 seconds. His qualifying time is more than eight seconds faster than Tremont runners Cole Dill and Conner Ehnle, who posted the next best Class 1A qualifying times. Despite the qualifying times of Dill and Ehnle, Nykaza is most concerned with Schroeder, who comes into the weekend's 1,600 event with the fourth best 1A time.
Nykaza said he hoped to avoid a tactical race, like last year's 1,600 finals; instead, he said he hopes to get out early to take command of the race this year.
"I'd like to say I've peaked now, but we don't really taper because we are a low-mileage team," Nykaza said of his training strategy. "Then once you get to state, you run as fast as you can and put it all on the line."
Nykaza started the season nursing shin injuries he incurred during offseason road training in February. Nykaza said his shins feel healthy now, and that running in only one event this year may work to his advantage.
"At the beginning of the week, I'll hang out with friends to take my mind off the race," Nykaza said. "By Wednesday night, I'll start to get nervous, hoping to qualify for the finals. I'm just going to go out and run my race, focus on my goal and see if I can achieve it."