Placing sixth in last year's Class 2A boys state track meet and then bringing back nearly every athlete critical to that result, there was no doubting Kaneland's goal for 2014.
"Obviously we've been pointing toward this all season long," said Knights coach Eric Baron, who at the Burlington Central sectional qualified 19 positions into this weekend's state meet at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
"It's not just about getting to the meet, it's about getting guys to Saturday (for the finals)," he said. "Our whole season has been about being able to run on Saturday."
Several among them have had that opportunity. Kyle Carter and Nathaniel Kucera, who with Luis Acosta set Kaneland's school record in a first-place 2A finish in the 3,200-meter relay (7 minutes, 50.26 seconds), have been three-year state qualifiers.
Hurdler Dylan Nauert, overcoming hamstring and groin problems to run his fastest times of the year down the stretch, is a four-year state qualifier as is sprint relay runner Brandon Bishop.
In a different but more amazing stretch Dylan Kuipers -- another returning qualifier -- and Dan Evers give Kaneland a state pole vault qualifier every year since 1983, a 32-year span.
Of Kaneland's 19 qualifiers into this year's 2A meet, a whopping 17 of them enter as a top-nine seed or better. Fancifully, if that were translated exactly to Charleston finals performances those would be all-state results each earning valuable team points.
The 3,200 relay of Andrew Lesak, Acosta, Carter and Kucera ran the fastest sectional time, 7:55.32. Thrower Nate Dyer had the best mark in shot put (56 feet, 2 inches; No. 2 in discus, 164-8).
The Knights bring down top-three sectional performances in pole vault (Kuipers, 14-6), the 300 hurdles (Nauert, 38.74 seconds), the 1,600 relay (Brock Robertson, Bishop, Carter, Kucera at 3:21.57) and the 400 relay (Bishop, Brandon Cruz, Nauert, Isaac Swithers at 42.76).
This all sounds rosy but the reality is Kaneland will need maximum points everywhere it can get them. Looming as the favorite, undisputed all season, is usual suspect Cahokia. Coach Leroy Millsap's Comanches, headed by returning state champions Jamari Ward (long jump) and Marlin Brady (400) and arguably the state's top hurdler in Gary Hickman -- Nauert and Burlington Central's Lucas Ege will have a say in that -- have won the last three 2A titles.
The last time Cahokia finished out of the top four in its classification was 2004 in a two-class system. Cahokia looks to join Bloom (1956-59), East St. Louis (1975-78), East St. Louis-Lincoln (1981-84), Thornwood (2001-04) and Lake Park (2010-13) with four straight titles. (Lake Park seeks an unprecedented fifth consecutive boys state title; the East St. Louis-Lincoln girls won nine straight between 1982-90.)
Baron also mentioned Dunlap as a potential foil. Burlington Central and a Springfield or two -- Lanphier, Southeast, or Springfield High -- could make a move, and if an individual athlete such Sycamore's Dion Hooker goes off, they can score some points.
Where Kaneland is strong so is Cahokia. Where Kaneland lacks on paper a serious all-state bid so does Cahokia. The Comanches' 3,200 relay follows only Kaneland among 2A sectional times, while the opposite holds in the 1,600 relay. Cahokia owns the No. 2 seed (behind Sycamore) in the 400 relay to Kaneland's No. 3, and is the No. 1 seed in the 800 relay to Kaneland's No. 4.
"I really think our two teams mirror each other a lot," Baron said.
An edge could be in the throws with Dyer and shot put high-riser Alex Snyder, "the feel-good story of the week for us," Baron said, after the senior went nearly 54 feet at Burlington Central to earn a No. 5 seed. Another margin could be pole vault, where Kuiper's sectional mark of 14-6 is a foot below his best.
Performance under pressure particularly for first-time qualifiers is crucial, but Kaneland's downstate experience may render this a moot point. So, Kaneland is focusing on little things particularly in field events that will help advance athletes into Saturday's finals -- perfecting form, getting the approach steps down on jumps, hitting marks, honing relay handoffs.
"I think the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to have a good shot at winning it," Baron said. "It could come down to the last leg of the mile (1,600) relay. It's going to be pretty good. We're a field event-heavy team just like they (Cahokia) are. Those are things where little mistakes could really hurt your squad.
"Our big focus this week is really setting ourselves up for Friday, not doing anything crazy on Friday but hitting our marks. We've got to get those guys in for finals and get a good mark in early so they can really get after it."
World's most interesting teen: St. Charles North senior Jack Feeney, who ran the 11th fastest 400-meter dash in a Class 3A sectional (49.46 seconds), also ran the leadoff leg of the North Stars' 3,200 relay, which he'll duplicate at the state meet. That means Feeney will have run the lead leg in all four relays downstate, the 400, 800, 1,600 and 3,200 combos.
Feeney also was just announced as the male winner of the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association's George Dekan Scholarship for 2014. (Naperville Central's Emily White was the female winner.) Feeney nets a $1,000 scholarship toward collegiate expenditures. He's headed to Carleton College in Minnesota to major in cinema and media studies.
In addition to his running career at St. Charles North, Feeney has acted in plays and also was the 2013 winner of the St. Charles North-East Film Festival for a short feature.
On a roll: Aurora Central Catholic's Javier Montelongo, Matt Knapp, Tyler Garcia and Daniel Aquino are part of a long-running achievement.
Qualifying downstate in the Class 2A 3,200-meter relay, it's the 21st time ACC boys made it in the distance relay. That includes 14 all-state finishes with top-five spots in 1978, 1979, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2012. That 1979 team -- John Mallette, John Leal, Chad DeKing and Tom Bohr won a state title.
Soaring into Charleston: One week after winning the Class 1A girls title, Aurora Christian is a team to watch on the boys side.
Coach Anna McQuade's Eagles qualified 11 positions into the state meet, and while some are well down on the list by event, others should vie for championships.
The Eagles are seeded third in both the 400 and 800 relays and Jonah Walker, seventh in state discus in 2013, is the No. 4 seed. Freshman Tanner Chada is the fifth seed in the 3,200 run as is Johnathan Harrell in the 400. Though Josh Shien is 13th in pole vault -- he actually tied with six others at 13 feet, 6 inches -- his experience as an 11th-place vaulter last year is a plus.