St. Francis coach Scott Nelson's familiar, neon orange ball cap returned to Charleston's O'Brien Field last weekend for the 123rd running of the boys state track and field finals. It had been a few years.
Sophomore Jon Aquino and junior Alex Hernandez ran in the Class 2A 800-meter preliminaries. They were joined by senior Nick Brouch and junior Joe Leo in the 3,200 relay.
"I think there's room for improvement," Aquino said after none of the Spartans advanced into the finals, but perhaps it was a return to form. St. Francis hadn't had a boys track qualifier since 2014 when Adam Izewski made it in triple jump, Matt Lorish in the 800 and the Spartans qualified a 1,600-relay team.
"It's a good group of kids who work hard, follow directions, are coachable and work in the off-season," Nelson said from the stands. "The biggest thing is their attitude -- a be-the-best-we-can-be attitude."
With the graduation of Brouch, who last fall became St. Francis' first all-state cross country runner since 2011, Aquino noted that his off-season goals included helping other Spartans earn that relay spot.
Hernandez said: "We weren't really supposed to be here this year. It was a huge accomplishment. We have three of our four guys coming back next year, so it was a really valuable experience to have. It's our goal to be back here again next year. I know we're going to."
Nelson said the boys didn't "pop like we could," but he wasn't dismayed.
"The kids always fight," the coach said, "and they did again today."
A memorable moment at the DuPage County Meet was Willowbrook senior Casey King's all-out effort to nip York's Jackson Bode for third place in the 800-meter run at 1 minute, 59.71 seconds.
King, headed to Loyola's medical school, couldn't cut that time to qualify downstate, but Warriors coach T.J. Artman said King received a worthy honor from Willowbrook, winning the Booster Club's award for 2016-17 male student-athlete.
Give him a hand:
At the Class 3A Naperville North sectional, Neuqua Valley sophomore Donovan Turner ran 14.65 seconds to win the 110-meter hurdles. With that he became not only Neuqua's first 110-meter state qualifier -- the last of the 18 events the Wildcats have qualified over the years -- but set both Neuqua's frosh-soph and varsity records in the event.
On Jan. 23 Turner tripped over a hurdle and broke the radial bone in his right forearm. On the road back he did 200 situps and 50 pushups a night on top of his workouts. Turner ran 14.96 in the Class 3A preliminaries, unable to reach the finals but setting the stage for the future.
"That really drove me to get better," Turner said of breaking his arm. "It really drove me, in my mind, to push myself no matter if it's in practice or at a meet."
Not forgotten, hopefully not gone:
At the Class 3A Lake Park boys track sectional Glenbard West horizontal jumps coach Tim Weber noted the 2017 season was to be his last.
A physical education teacher at Glenbard East, Weber coached in the Glenbard West football program and made the jump to Hilltoppers track a few seasons ago. Among his charges at Glenbard East was Iowa's Antwon James, who will be competing in next week's NCAA Division I men's championships in triple jump.
Weber said he wouldn't continue as a lead position coach in football or track at Glenbard West but didn't rule out future appearances in either sport. Always friendly, helpful and encouraging not only to the athletes he mentored but to other teams' jumpers, it is hoped he returns in some capacity.
Glenbard South senior long jumper Conner Howard: "I felt a second pop (in his hamstring). Maybe it'll reverse the first pop I felt last week."
Wheaton Warrenville South junior hurdler Joe Zubak, on his downstate experience possibly helping for next season: "Yeah, I hope."
York coach Charlie Kern on his son, also Charlie, pulling out of the 1,600 to focus on the 800: "You bite too much, you choke."
Having just qualified for the Class 3A 300 hurdles final, Downers Grove North senior hurdler Joe Keys was asked about his chances: "One race at a time, I take it. I don't really look in the past or in the future."
Bradley-bound Downers North senior Alec Danner, fourth in the Class 3A 1,600: "I'm very grateful for all the chances and opportunities I received from this school. I'll remember it very warmly."
Lisle coach Ken Jakalski after senior Isaiah Hunter, the fourth seed in the Class 2A 400, was disqualified for a false start in his preliminary heat: "I don't think he's false-started once in the past two, three years. But on any given day, you run that race five minutes later and the finish could be totally different."
WW South senior Kyle Thompson, headed to Marquette but finishing his prep days in the Class 3A 1,600: "It's weird to be done. It was a fun four years."
WW South senior pole vaulter Tom Ansiel, who will compete for his uncle, Jeff Bolender, at Cedarville University; Ansiel finished seventh in Class 3A and ninth in 2016: "I'm happy to be on the podium this year. Last year I was off to the side."
Wheaton College-bound senior Jonah Jones of Wheaton Academy, fourth in the 2A 1,600: "This race was just icing on the cake."
Neuqua Valley senior Nick Mitchell, who in his second track season ran on the Wildcats' 3A third-place 1,600 relay: "Coming from not really knowing what I was doing to all-state is awesome."
Montini junior Matt Quaglia, who with Zach Olson, Nick Fedanzo and Mitch West placed second in the 2A 400-meter relay to Rich Central: "They ran 42.1, a crazy time. We can't be mad because we ran 42.5, that's a PR. Yeah, we were hoping to win, but congrats to them."
Seven-time Montini all-stater Mitch West, headed to the Naval Academy for football, on his eighth-place 2A 200-meter finish after placing second both in the relay and in the 100: "I ran this one for satisfaction."
Glenbard North senior hurdler Jace James, fourth in the 3A 110 hurdles but unable to reach the 300 finals: "I'm happy with the year as a whole. During the stretch of sectionals and state I'm not very happy with the results, but I'm happy with myself as a whole."
Loyola-bound Glenbard West hurdler Vince Di Venere, crediting teammates Pat Howard and Brady Heller after setting a program-record 38.51 with a fourth-place 300 hurdles finish: "In practice you need guys like that pushing you every single day. They pushed me every single day."
The fourth annual summertime Milk Mile, begun as a joint venture between Neuqua Valley and Hinsdale Central runners, will be held Saturday at Hinsdale Central. The first of four initial heats of high school runners begins at 1:20 p.m., followed by a college/masters race at 2:40 and a high school championship heat at 3 p.m.
More than 200 runners, including DuPage County stars such as Danner, Thompson, Neuqua's Isaiah Robinson, Hinsdale Central's Blake Evertsen, Waubonsie Valley's Wes York and Naperville North's Claire Hamilton will grace the track, so to speak, by chugging a 12-ounce glass of chocolate milk to start the race and before each of the subsequent three laps.
Last year's event raised nearly $900 dollars for Minooka coach Mark Smith, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2016. Smith passed away in November, but this year's proceeds of the Milk Mile will go to Harley's Helping Hands, a Burr Ridge nonprofit organization that since its founding in 2009 has provided more than $400,000 to adults battling brain cancer.