CHARLESTON | Four years and more of blood, sweat and toil came down to less than eight minutes of hard work Saturday morning for four runners from Illiana Christian.
In their sights: The 3,200 relay title in the IHSA’s Class 2A championship.
On the tail of Kevin Vroegh, Austin Gibson, Nick Fiene and Tony Wondaal for most of the eight laps were their counterparts from Cahokia, the squad they had wanted to measure themselves against all year.
They thought they’d have a chance at the Illinois Top Times meet, but an official’s blunder meant laps were miscounted. That left the question of whether the Vikings or Comanches were faster in the air for two more months.
Like engineers trimming the drag on a race car for qualifying, the Vikings left nothing to chance. They scratched from their 1,600-meter relay qualifying race on Friday. Gibson was pulled from the 800 meter run to concentrate on his relay leg.
“Anything that would take a second off, we did,” Wondaal said.
The payoff came in the form of a victory over Cahokia and a state meet record time in Class 2A. Illiana, with only four entrants on Saturday, managed to score 18 points and finish 13th.
The relay proved to be a virtuoso performance. Vroegh reeled in Cahokia leadoff man Jalon Monigan on the second lap and had a short lead by the time he handed off to Gibson.
“We really wanted to get ahead of the pack right away,” Vroegh said.
“It was just ‘go fast.’ That’s all you can really do.”
Gibson ran two hot laps to hold off feisty Tryan Lyons.
“He caught up to me on the backstretch and took the lead,” Gibson said.
But Lyons was ahead for only a few meters. When they came back around, Gibson was leading again, and then passed the baton to Fiene, who had bungled his 1,600-meter qualifying race on Friday, following the slow leader and failing to adjust. There was no such error on Saturday. Fiene expanded his lead on Mike Monigan.
“I thought he was closer the whole race,” Fiene said. “I never really looked back. I just kept going and going. I think that almost helped me. I thought he was right behind me.”
It was up to Wondaal to bring it home, and he succeeded, crossing the finish line in 7:46.38, to break the 2A record by 1.54 seconds.
Cahokia anchor Chris McGee faded, Kaneland’s Nathaniel Kucera taking second.
“There’s nothing scarier than running the last 200 meters with the announcer saying, ‘Stanford recruit Kucera in the chase.’ ” Wondaal said. “That got me going, man.”
Wondaal was over the finish line about 10 meters ahead of Kucera, capping an individual career that has seen cross-country and track success, but also capping an era for Illiana.
“It’s the guys who went before us, a couple of whom were in the stands today,” Wondaal said. “Our alumni are just the best. I think that was my favorite thing about my four years at Illiana, seeing seniors reach out to me. I’ve never felt so welcome.”
Such camaraderie rubbed off across the squad. Gibson had no problem about not running his 800. Everyone was cool about scratching from the 1,600 relay. All the focus of the quartet was on the opening relay of the day.
“I knew I wanted to come out here and leave nothing on the track,”
Fiene said. “It’s God’s blessing us guys can come together here. It was an amazing opportunity that was put in place before us.”
Cahokia won four events and piled up enough points to take the 2A team title with 90 points, six points ahead of Kaneland. But Illiana won the race it aimed to win all season.
Additionally, Colin DeYoung took seventh in the 3,200 meter run, which added three points to the ledger, and did it the hard way. He ran in the slow heat of the race, pulling away in that heat.
Finally, Vroegh celebrated further with a fifth place finish in the 800-meter run, good for Illiana’s final five points.
“I was so tired, but the adrenalin from winning a state championship earlier today, and the last time I’ll be running for Illiana Christian, so I was giving my all,” Vroegh said. “I could feel the lactic acid building up at about 500 meters, and they were coming by me. I was counting guys as they went by, and i looked back and there was a whole pack there.
“I kinda just said, I really want a medal right now, and I just picked it up. I picked a couple of guys off. This one was very fun to run. There really was no pressure. Run for fun, run for place.”
And a happy footnote to the legacy this group – Vroegh, Gibson and Tony Wondaal are seniors – can leave to future Vikings.
“You think about it, the guys you’re leaving behind, and how well they’re going to do in the future,” Vroegh said. “A state record is a legacy to leave behind.”