RANTOUL — My old high school track and cross country coach, Wesclin’s Keith Hall, used to tell the team, “if in your mind, you can conceive it and in your heart you can believe it, then you can achieve it”.
Some 34 years later, it is 2020 and Rantoul Eagle Coach Mitch Wilson definitely believes in his team. Now, along with every other coach in the state, is waiting for the authorities to give the opportunity to achieve. For the Eagle boys track team that could very well mean being in contention for some team hardware, symbolizing a top three team finish in the state of Illinois.
“I do not know what is going to happen with this season,” said Wilson. “No one does. It has not been canceled yet. We as a team, coaching staff and our captains feel like we could be very successful if we continue to take care of business on a day-to-day basis. This year’s seniors were eighth place as an eighth grade team. We feel like this year is the year we have all the right pieces to the puzzle to have a successful season if we can stay healthy through the end of May.”
Those “right pieces” start with four all state sprinters. Jerry Harper, who has collected an individual medal in the 400-meter dash during the last two years, finishing fifth as a sophomore and third as a junior. Harper started collecting all-state medals as a freshman and has three all-state medals in the 1,600-meter relay as well.
Harper is was the only individual Illinois High School Association Class 2A All-Stater returning. But, the other all-state positions returning were all on the relays. Three of the four members of both the 400-meter relay and while two members return from the 1,600-meter relay.
“I love the relays,” said Wilson. “The main reason is because we have not had any 10.7/10.8 second 100-meter dash athletes during my coaching career at Rantoul. We have had 11.2/11.3 second guys. If you can perfect the handoffs, you can get four athletes to state instead of no one. There is also something about watching four boys come together for one common goal to get that baton around the track as fast as possible. I also love the preparation that goes into running a fast relay. It was great to watch us qualify in three relays last year and break the school record in the 1,600-meter relay.”
Besides Jerry Harper returning in the 1,600-meter relay, Robert Buford also returns. The team of Jerry Harper, Buford, Kayon Cunningham and Elijah Hall dashed to a third place finish in the relay. Cunningham and Hall graduated last year. Buford also returns in the 400-meter relay as do Dillion Harper and Treven Lewis. The 400-meter relay finished seventh in the state one year ago. Cunningham was also a member of the 400-meter relay.
“Kayon and Elijah are very similar in their demeanor,” said Wilson. “They did not talk much, but you know when they got a chance to compete they would lay it all on the line. We will miss the work ethic they had in the weight room, the class room and as track athletes. Their ability to rally others on the team was awesome and their experience was amazing.”
Jerry Harper was named the overall Most Valuable Player one year ago, while Buford was named to as the teams Most Outstanding Sprinter. Brandon Lord was named the Eagle Outstanding Field Event Athlete and Allan Newman, the track athlete with the highest grade point average, earned the Academic Excellence Award.
All of the returning all-staters were also all conference in the Illini Prairie Conference. Gary Lawson, Jonathan Gossett and Tayon Swift were all-conference as well.
“Our strength this year will be the short sprints, long sprints, relays and the distance crew,” said Wilson. “Our assistant coach Nick Cole does a tremendous job coaching the distance races.”
Other returning letter winners include Dahinte Thompson, Jamiah Foster, Keddrick Terhune, Lance Cloninger, Luke Zech and Raj Patel.
“The year the eighth graders got eighth in the Illinois Elementary School Association Finals, East St. Louis Lincoln was first,” reported Wilson. “They are always a power in Class 2A and they continue to be. They are the king until someone knocks them off. We also know that Eureka will be strong, because they have a great group of juniors, who won the IESA State Title when they were seventh graders.”
Other teams that should be strong, closer to home include Mahomet-Seymour, Tolono Unity and Monticello. The other team will be competing for one of the state championship trophies is Marengo.
“I know Marengo has one great athlete (Finnigan Schirmer) that won three state titles and scored points in a fourth event and the were second one year ago,” said Wilson. “Mahomet-Seymour has some athletes that have performed very well during indoor season. Unity and Monticello always going to have some good athletes and can put together some good relays as well.”