1A State Track: Sabers are fleet of feet
CHARLESTON — Nick Hess, Sean Kelley, Jacob Helfrich and Sam Powers are growing accustomed to putting distance between themselves and other runners.
It started last fall, when they helped St. Thomas More win the IHSA Class 1A cross-country state championship.
It continued in the winter, when they teamed up on the Sabers’ 3,200-meter indoor state championship relay.
There has been no letup this spring as the foursome is unbeaten in the same distance relay against all Class 1A competition, including Thursday’s preliminaries in the 119th annual boys’ track and field state meet at Eastern Illinois University.
All four runners had 800-meter splits between 2:02 and 2:03 as STM qualified with the best time (8:09.70) for Saturday’s 12-team finals.
Each of the four also qualified for state in at least one individual event, but they take the most pride in what they accomplish collectively.
“We could do better in individual events if we didn’t do this,” Helfrich said.
“Together, we can achieve a lot more,” Kelley said. “We have always done a good job working together.”
Hess, Kelley, Helfrich and Powers have targeted the state record (7:53.69) as their state goal, but that wasn’t what they had in mind during Thursday’s race.
“Our thing today was win the heat race and get to the finals,” STM coach David Behm said. “We didn’t want to break any records today.”
The coach hasn’t had to tinker with the lineup.
“It has been the same four kids in the same order,” Behm said.
Thursday’s second-best qualifying time in the 3,200 relay belonged to the runner-up team in the heat won by the Sabers. St. Joseph-Ogden ran its season’s best by almost seven seconds (8:12.75).
When St. Thomas More runs the meet-opening relay race Saturday, it will chase IHSA and school history. The Sabers have never had a state champion in boys’ track and field.
In an effort to have the best chance for relay success, Helfrich withdrew from Thursday’s competition in the 1,600, a race where he’d qualified for state with the seventh-best sectional time.
“He found out two days ago he has a cracked bone in his foot,” Behm said. “The doctor said he could run as long as he could stand the pain. Saturday, Jacob will give us everything he’s got.”
Helfrich and Kelley are the seniors on the 3,200 relay. It’s the event they’ve anticipated.
“That relay has been our main focus,” Kelley said.
Hess, meanwhile, advanced to the finals with the second-best time in the 1,600 meters (4:27.25).
In a race run mostly in rain, Hess covered the first 800 meters in 2:11 and pushed to the front thereafter to win his heat race.
He will be the busiest of all area competitors Saturday. The junior is also in the finals of the 3,200, which has no preliminaries.
Behm is confident he can handle the demanding load.
“We’ve been training for this,” Behm said. “We can score points in each (individual) event.”
Hess is ranked fourth entering the 3,200 finals, where one of the other competitors is teammate Kelley.
The Sabers have one other event where they could score points. Senior Kevin Carroll advanced with the eighth-best mark in the triple jump (42 feet, 3 inches).
Behm said Carroll is benefiting from the workouts he’s done in preparation for joining the Illini football team this fall as a walk-on.
“He has been hitting the weights, working on his strength and agility,” Behm said. “He has been training real hard.”