PEORIA -- The irony was not lost on Mike DiDomenico. There he was, proud coach of Batavia's boys cross country team, a first-time state team qualifier in his 34th and final year as coach of the Bulldogs, and he had a protective boot on his right foot.
The cause: The runner's woe, a blown Achilles in July.
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But his team didn't disappoint him, even after finishing 23rd in the 26-team Class 3A field.
"It's been sweet," said DiDomenico, who retired from teaching last year but decided to coach one more year. He tried to deflect the attention from himself, adding, "It's a great moment not only for these kids, but for Batavia cross country and the future of Batavia cross country.
"We finally broke down that door (of qualifying for state). It's going to be fun to see them in the future."
Asked if the state berth was a going-away present for him, DiDomenico said it was a present for the seniors.
One of those seniors, Mitch Zabka, said qualifying in their coach's final year added to the achievement.
"Not only did it mean a lot to me, it meant a lot to the team," Zabka said. "At sectionals, we didn't think we made it, but our tight pack meant we took fifth (the last qualifying spot). It was great to send him off like that. I know it's one of the greatest moments he's going to have in his life. And it's something I'm going to cherish the rest of my life.
"He always wants us to feel it's about us."
Zabka finished 82nd, and 70 seconds behind the Patrick Perrier's winning time of 14:21 for O'Fallon, but the point was, he had company, six other guys running with the same yellow B on a white shirt. And for the first time. Ryan Wieties, Patrick Redmond, Jorden Berendt, David Morrison, Mitch Voellinger and Chris Orlow didn't bring home a trophy or earn all-state honors, but they started something.
"We made history by opening up that door," DiDomenico said.
Kaneland finished 22nd in the 27-team Class 2A field, with Nathaniel Kucera's 49th place finish the best of the seven. He ran the three-mile route in 15:54.
Max Roland of St. Charles East was 176th in Class 3A, finishing in 16:07.
Mooseheart's Khat fourth in the Class 1A: A year after becoming Mooseheart's first All-State cross country runner, Wal Khat became the Ramblers' first Top Five finisher in the IHSA Class 1A Cross Country finals.
Khat achieved that milestone when he finished fourth in Saturday's finals at Detweiller Park in Peoria after he covered the three-mile course in 15:09.
"I feel good, but it's bad for me because it's my last year," Khat said. "I'm disappointed. But I'm so excited for my time. My time was good."
In one sense, Khat's strategy was relatively simple: get to the front of the pack, stay there and push to try to win the race.
"It's something that he struggles with, getting out quickly in that first 100 meters," Mooseheart coach Torinn Pope said. "If he gets into that pack, then he has to use his energy to move up to the front. This week, he did much better getting up there."
Khat moved effectively through traffic at the start of Saturday's race at Detweiller Park, established himself among the top quartet of runners and then looked for openings to move up places.
That was where things to not go according to plan. Race winner Jon Davis from Oakwood wasn't going to let anyone catch him, covering the 3.1-mile course in 14:47. And when Davis and Champaign St. Thomas More's Nick Hess broke two-thirds through the race, Khat did not move with them. Hess finished second and ran 15:03.
"Running is mentality," Khat said. "If your legs are tired, even though you want to do it, your legs are tight and you can't really move. What I put in mind was 'just let me do this, let me do my best.'"
As he made the final turn before the long straight to the finish line, Khat stood third, but Kewanee Wethersfield's Michael Cook charged and caught Khat roughly 300 yards from the finish. Cook nearly caught Hess but finished in 15:04, five seconds ahead of Khat, who consolidated fourth place and was seven seconds ahead of Tuscola's Eric Ponder, who completed the fastest five finishers in the race.
"I feel bad because the one guy came from behind to beat me," Khat said. "I tried to race him and then my legs got tired. Those last 400 meters were hard to the finish line."
Khat's cross county career is finished though he still has the spring track season before completing his athletic eligibility at Mooseheart.
"Track is coming up and we'll try to set him up to be a state champion in track," Pope said.
-- Darryl Mellema