All 5 feet, 9 inches of Lakes junior Jake Balliu is what it came down to for Lakes in its pursuit of the North Suburban Conference boys track and field title at Mundelein on Thursday night.
And the race between the Eagles and fellow Prairie Division rival Grant was about as close, certainly less than 10 feet.
That final distance on the clay-colored track at Mundelein was what separated the Eagles and Bulldogs. And it was Balliu covering the final distance faster than Grant anchor leg Billy Sullivan.
When Balliu crossed the finish line just ahead of Zion-Benton's Michael Edwards to win the 1,600-meter relay for Lakes, it set off a wild celebration in the middle of the Mustangs football field. That victory gave Lakes its first NSC title in the nine-year history of the school.
Lakes scored 98.5 points to edge out the two-time defending champion Bulldogs, who finished with 91. NSC Lake Division champ Warren ran third with 69 points.
"The one thing I can say without provocation is that Jake Balliu is a man's man," said a very happy and relieved Lakes coach Kurt Rowells. "He is an amazing kid -- the kind of kid you want with the ball in his hand at the end of a football game or a baton in his hand in the last race."
Balliu was joined by Alex Murray, Robert Kuhlman and Brandon Thiel to run an impressive 3:25.83 in frigid conditions. Grant and its team of Sullivan, Kyle Hatton, Kemar Miller and Jeremy Bredwood ran a season-best 3:26.89 in finishing third.
"Lakes deserved to win the meet tonight," Grant coach Tom Evans said. "I am very happy for them -- they are a great team."
The final relay was just a portion of the story for the Eagles, as Lakes won three other individual events at the meet.
Eagles sophomore Cooper Jazo took the top spot in the pole vault, winning with a clearance of 13 feet.
Miami of Ohio-bound junior Ryan Mullen took the top spot in the discus (154-7) and just missed out on the top spot in the shot put to Nitin Tangellamudi of Warren. Tangellamudi won Warren's first conference crown in the shot put with a best mark of 53-10.5.
"I started out the year kind of nervous," Tangellamudi said. "Then I threw a PR and the rest started to come together for me. Now my focus is on sectionals and state."
On the track, Eagles junior Corey Hertz captured the only individual running event title as he took the top spot in the 400 (49.2). Hertz also collected valuable points with a second-place finish in the 200 (22.72) and a third-place finish in the 100 (11.48).
"I was pretty tired after running the 4 but I knew I had to finish ahead of the Grant guy to help our team," Hertz said.
One Grant performer had a grand day in his final conference meet. Illinois-bound senior Jonathan Wells captured individual titles in three events. His long jump mark of 21-10.25 edged out Kiwhan Kim of Stevenson for the top spot (21-1.5). Wells cruised in the 110 high hurdles, winning in 14.95.
His best event, and the one where he stands as the defending Class 3A champion was the high jump. Though he gave everyone at Grant a scare by needing 3 attempts at his opening height of 6-7, Wells cleared that and then 6-9 to win the event.
"It took some getting used to and I know my mark was a bit off in the high jump," Wells said. "We made some adjustments, and I gave all I had for the team to get that one done."
Illinois State-bound senior Kyle Hatton of Grant was involved in what turned out to be the best individual race of the night, the 800-meter run. Hatton and Mundelein junior Bryce Richards battled step-for-step around the Mundelein track for two laps before Richards crossed the line just ahead of Hatton. Richards' time of 1:54.74 broke the conference mark set by Danny Gardiner of Stevenson at last year's meet. Hatton was second in 1:55.68.
"In the last 200 meters I could feel (Hatton) right on my back," Richards said. "I could feel him right next to me so I knew I had to keep pushing."
Hatton wasn't about to give in to Richards.
"After that first quarter, the race felt very fast," Hatton said. "I just knew it would be that kind of race."
While Richards and Hatton battled over 800 meters, no one was about to catch Lake Zurich freshman Matt Pereira in the 3,200 and the 1,600 runs. For the first time all season, Pereira ran the distance double and the result was a pair of conference titles.
Pereira cruised in the 3,200, winning in 9:33.3, then took over late in the 1,600 to edge Pat Human of Libertyville in 4:21.52.
Libertyville had a pair of individual event winners. Max Roberts took the top spot in the 300 hurdles (40.01) and Keith Wilson was the best of the group in the triple jump (42-10.5).
Vernon Hills' team of Kyle Whitney, Eric Doerhoefer, Ben Mohrdieck and Shane Williamson took the 3,200 relay in 8:09.51.
Stevenson was the best of the best in the 800 relay. Tim Vestuto, Kiwhan Kim, Jason Pitts and David Goncharov ran a season-best 1:30.76 for the win.