Joel Popenfoose thought the youngest of his three sons, Marcus, was destined to be a standout on the track, not in the field.
Marcus ran a fast 400 time as a sixth grader, and he competed well in the sprints in seventh grade. Joel said he envisioned Marcus one day joining his brother Casey, older by two years, on a state qualifying relay team at Huntley High School.
But the course of Marcus Popenfoose's career veered more toward field and less toward track once Chris Maxedon, a family friend, began coaching throwers at Heineman Middle School in Huntley when Marcus was in seventh grade. Maxedon needed to draft one good athlete to become a thrower; He asked for Marcus, already one of the strongest kids in his class.
Marcus demonstrated natural ability for the discus almost immediately. As a seventh grader, he won the Illinois Elementary School State title in Peoria. He repeated as champion in eighth grade.
"He started throwing and he had so much success right away that he couldn't train for the 400 and easily change for the throws," said Joel, a pastor at Westlake Community Church and an assistant coach for Huntley track and football. "Eventually, he started sprinting only and would go do the throws."
Marcus put himself on the state map as a freshman thrower in May 2007. Feeding off the energy of 200-300 spectators at the state meet - a relative throng compared to the smallish crowds throwers draw during the regular season - Marcus placed eighth in the discus with a throw of 163 feet, 8 inches.
Earning a state medal and all-state accolades against established upperclassmen in his first attempt sparked higher ambitions.
"He set the goal that by the time he finishes and graduates as a senior that he would be a state champion," Maxedon said. "He said at that time, 'I'm not going to settle for anything less.' "
Over the next two seasons Popenfoose inched closer to a state title. As a sophomore, he finished fourth in the discus (168-9). And though he had just begun spinning, he nearly made the all-state podium as a shot putter with a 10th-place finish (54-3).
Marcus' junior season was his best yet. During the preliminaries at the state meet, he threw the discus 199-8, a new state record at the time. He held the record overnight until then-senior Dan Block from Lake Park broke it twice in the finals, Block's longest throw covering a title-winning distance of 205-8. Popenfoose was unable to surpass his own preliminary throw and finished as runner-up.
Marcus also finished second to Block in the shot put. Block sent the shot 62 feet, Popenfoose 59-113/4. Coming so close to winning two state titles only fanned his inner fire.
After the two-time Daily Herald All-Area football player helped the Red Raiders make their second straight playoff appearance last fall, he hit the weight room like a man possessed. Following a program Joel developed, Marcus put on 35 pounds of muscle from November through February.
Meanwhile, the student ranked 44th of 425 in his class (3.864 grade-point average) was finalizing his college choice. After sifting through offers from several major college track and field programs over an 18-month period, he settled last December on Auburn.
At peace with his college choice, Popenfoose worked single-mindedly with spring track season in mind. "I honestly don't know that I've seen a kid work harder in the weight room," Maxedon said. Popenfoose could clean 290 pounds, squat 390 and bench 325.
But Marcus faced a problem once the outdoor season began: He was too big. Shot and discus techniques require different, delicate sets of footwork, and the extra weight threw off Popenfoose's balance. He was constantly fouling, particularly in the shot put. The decision was made to back off the weights completely. To regain his quickness, he jumped rope and executed multiple standing jumps over sets of six hurdles. In less than two months he shed 20 pounds.
Popenfoose and Maxedon spent 70 percent of practice time this season on the shot put, 30 percent on discus. Progress was demonstrated when Marcus set a new personal best in the shot put (61-3) at the Fox Valley Conference meet on May 14. He set a new personal record in discus (202-4) at the Crystal Lake Central Invite on April 30. He holds the invitational record in discus and shot at virtually every meet Huntley has competed in from Freeport to Crystal Lake.
Friday, Popenfoose returns to Charleston for the fourth and final time to compete for the title he has chased since 2007. Everyone at his school is rooting for him, and it's easy to understand why.
Popenfoose is the type of guy who cheers on his running teammates once his throwing events are finished. He holds their blocks, tries to pump them up. Every Sunday morning he spends four hours at church setting up the audio system and running the slide projector. Popenfoose's classmates look up to him; Adults universally praise him.
Marcus will face stiff competition for the discus and shot put titles, mainly from Lake Park twins Jermaine and Jeremy Kline. Jermaine threw better in both events on sectional night. But Popenfoose has title expectations of himself, particularly in the discus.
Will he walk away a state champion on Saturday? Well, this is the young man who said three years ago he wouldn't settle for anything less. And he doesn't just want to go out a winner. He wants to make his mark as the best in Illinois history.
"I want to break the state record because I know have it in me," Marcus said. "I've been throwing a lot of good throws and I've consistently been in the 190s this year. I'm just waiting for that big one to pop.
"The shot has developed over the last couple of years. I just started throwing shot better and I thought, 'Hey, this is something I should go after, too. Why not set my goals high and try to capture the state title in both of them? With the Klines, that could be a stretch. But that's still my goal and what I want to go after. I'm still shooting for it."
No stage brings out the best in Popenfoose like the state's biggest stage. Each year he has set a new personal best in the discus at the state meet. Whereas some athletes wilt under the spotlight, he thrives.
"I just like people watching me because when you're at the state meet throwing in front of 200 to 300 people, it's a cool thing," he said. "You get that feeling. Last year I expected I was going to go out and push Dan Block. That was my goal, to try to beat him, to try to put that pressure on him and that's what I did.
"I figure the best place to set a state record is at the state meet. Mentally, I know that's where I'm going to be my best. Even when I was struggling earlier this season I was thinking, 'At the state meet it will be different.' It always is different. Whenever I step in at the state meet, I feel so much better and so much more confident in what I'm doing."
Popenfoose speaks with the confidence of a state champion. Come Saturday afternoon, he very well could one, even if it isn't as a relay runner as his father once imagined.
"It didn't work out quite the way I thought it would, but it worked out," Joel said with a smile. "These kids have to find their own way."