One of the state's elite track and field stars, Finnigan Schirmer, found out real fast the depth, strength and the talent of New Balance Nationals Outdoors
When I received the official start list for this year's New Balance Nationals Outdoor a week prior, I was very excited if not delighted. And it was Father's Day Weekend. There were a record number of Illinois kids entered in the most explosive high school track and field meet in the country. And for once in a long time, there was some real firepower coming out of Texas. I didn't mean to mention that Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia are represented. The last known best states for high school track and field put Illinois in the #5 position.
As I prepared for my flight to sunny Greensboro, I couldn't help but think about how well we were going to do. Our two very best teams, Crete-Monee, and E. St. Louis Senior were loading up in several relays and in individual events. We could finally show the nation the real deal about Illinois! Even our emerging elite forces appeared to be strong... freshman and the junior high contingent were ready to tangle with their peers.
SO LET'S GET IT ON!
Thursday, the opening day has finally arrived. A full slate of events in which some have termed "junior high day." One of our best female distance runners, freshman Ava Parekh of Chicago Latin, actually qualified for the championship mile and two-mile. But she chose to stay with her peers. Ava won both races with ease- taking the deuce by more than 15 seconds with a solid 10:43.79. The next day it was the mile that she captured in 4:57.04. Her new found friend freshman Audrey Allman of Glenbard West placed fourth in the 800 with a near personal best 2:14.21 and later second in the mile with a speedy closing that netted 5:03.07. Trevor Heffren of Eureka even turned out to perform well. The super freshman had won the 2A boys high jump state title several weekends before and was able to maintain his fitness. Heffren took second on misses with a good 6-8.25. Lillianna Ifft of Prairie Central on the girl's side in the pole vault nabbed fifth and Isaac Whitaker of Bloomington Central Catholic was second in the boy's pole vault. As you can see things were looking up and the prospects of even more greatness were ready to be unleashed.
It was a lonely feeling in Greensboro at times for the great athletes of the Land of Lincoln
I love all aspects of our great sport- so much so that I entered my boys from Chicago Lane Tech in the Emerging Elite Distance Medley Relay. We would finish 7th overall in the standings, missing a medal by a scant one-second. But our friends in Elmhurst took fourth. York ran well with a state-leading 10:24.79. But like a kid in a candy store, I was looking forward to the championship day. Typically the last two days of competition- Saturday and Sunday are where the best come and show out.
Finally, the time had come and the excitement as well as nerves upon me. I could not have imagined what the young men from Crete-Monee were thinking when they assembled on the track. The meet announcers made it a point to announce each team's accomplishments. "From Texas, representing Ft. Bend Marshall, US#1..." They wanted to show everyone what Texas speed looked like and they did. The Buffalos Run TC as they called themselves roasted the entire section 7 field by overall a second and a half in 1:24.41. Crete-Monee happened to be in the fast section and the Warriors placed fifth but sixth overall in 1:27.29. Some of the fans back home appeared to be upset, but to add context there was US#9 Bullis MD, US#11 Reagan NC, Hopkins MN- all teams that ran in the 1:25 low to mid-range prior to the meet. Sorry, but the Warriors were not better than any of those units.
We reported earlier that Windsor Roberts had the performance of a lifetime in the girl's championship pole vault. The Tri-Valley sophomore was not afraid of competing against a great field which included the national record holder Chloe Cunliffe of West Seattle WA. Roberts took second and set herself up for future greatness. Our good buddy and the loquacious Sam Liokumovich of Deerfield saved his best for last in the shot put before packing for Stanford University in the fall. Big Sam L avenged a horrifying 2018 performance in which he placed 32nd (53-3.5). The US #11 performance 65-2.5 got him a nice bronze medal and a big smile. There would be no individual track All-Americans as the remaining performers came from Chloe Lindeman of Fulton and Jayden Ulrich of East Alton-Wood River in the girls shot put. They placed fourth and fifth respectively. Chandlar Ifft of Prairie Central took sixth in the boy's pole vault.
We did not earn another medal. I began to read all kinds of excuses on social media and from some folks in attendance. Here is a list: bad training systems, too hot for Illinois kids, inexperience, kids want to have fun, they already peaked from their state meet.
Sorry... as much as I love my state I cannot and will not allow what I saw and heard go unchecked.
You can use any training system that you want or believe in. You have to be ready when your number is called. I won't mention the name of his event but he was a premier performer over the last two seasons who especially was geared up for this meet. "I was throwing great in warmups then when the meet started I just couldn't throw. I don't know why," he said. Sometimes things are hard to explain. Meanwhile, one of our top relay units was rocked hard in the 4x100 prelims and never appeared to mentally recover from the beating. "We were ready for the competition here... I know I was ready and I knew I could have made the final in my event and we could have made finals. I don't know what happened," said the stunned all-state performer. He and several others were shell shocked to the point that a surrender flag was raised before the weekend concluded. New Balance is a different league. In one race, I heard the PA say six different state champions represented on an eight-lane track. Yikes!
One of my colleagues said it was warm weather and those states that practice in it that had the advantage over us. Interesting...
I saw kids from cold weather Midwest states win national sprint titles, earn high All-American awards, dominate some of their sprint powered foes from Texas, California, and Florida. Missouri, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio all had a national champion somewhere on the board. I believe that similarily climate states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York did not have any issues in the medals department.
Let's eliminate the transportation issue too. Illinois kids travel well. They do it for the cross country and track & field alike from my perspective. We saw a record number of kids going to indoor meets outside of the Illinois border. Neuqua Valley boys and the Homewood-Flossmoor girls took a record number of kids to the Arcadia Invitational in California over the past several years. That is a hefty trip in terms of logistics and price tap.
I don't believe inexperience had anything to do with it. This is the national championship. You have to be ready and you have to prepare for the highest level of competition that you are in. It bothered me to hear kids say, 'I'm here for the bag' or 'I've been off for a few weeks before deciding to come to this meet and I wasn't mentally strong coming in.' This is really disrespectful not only to oneself but to the competition that our athletes are facing. A good friend of mine coach Brandon Jiles of the Motor City TC/Oak Park HS in Michigan told me that he plants a different mindset in his team's head from the beginning. "Bro, every year I push to be competitive nationally. It's the only standard- I don't know any other way," he flat out said to me. "Our kids are just as good as anyone. Our state just can't compare in the weather."
I am 100% confident that some lessons were learned here because I talked with numerous kids who were in attendance as well as some of those home watching or following on media platforms. They are eager to restore the state of Illinois back among the rightful order in the food chain. That certainly is not on the bottom to be eaten alive.