1A State Track: Throwing a party

CHARLESTON — The discus is an event where area athletes have excelled in the first 118 years of the boys’ track and field state meet.

Eighteen of the previous IHSA state champions were throwers from The News-Gazette area.

There has never been a stronger collection of discus competitors than this year, however.

Villa Grove’s Ryan Pearce, Salt Fork’s Alec Dutton and Fisher’s Josh Wallick are providing the proof.

During Thursday’s Class 1A preliminary round at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium, they had the first-, second- and third-best qualifying marks for Saturday’s 12-person finals.

Dutton and Pearce were assigned to the same flight, with defending state champion Pearce following Dutton in the throwing order.

Dutton’s first toss was the day’s best, 151 feet, 1 inch. Minutes later, Pearce responded with a 155-5 effort.

Dutton’s second toss again became the day’s best, 161-7. Pearce again responded with a better mark, sending the discus 162-1.

“It has been like that all year,” Pearce said. “He has beaten me some, and I’ve beaten him some.”

The two have been competing against one another since seventh grade.

“I don’t know if I would call it a rivalry,” Dutton said. “It’s more of a friendly competition.”

Pearce feels the same way.

“We’re friends, and it pushes us,” he said.

Pearce doesn’t mind following Dutton, even when his competitor has established the mark to beat.

“I like it because I know what I have to throw to beat it,” he said.

Dutton wasn’t feeling comfortable during warmups.

“There was a mist, the ring was getting slick and I was throwing in my tennis shoes,” he said. “I was pretty worried.”

The rain eventually subsided, and Dutton switched to his throwing shoes.

Wallick — a state champion heavyweight wrestler — moved into contention for the bronze medal with a 150-6 toss on the last of his three attempts.

Pearce and Dutton are prominent finalists in the shot put as well. Pearce ranks first (58-13/4) and has more than a 4-foot lead over his closest pursuer. Dutton had the third-best qualifying mark (51-3).

Another area senior, Westville’s Nick Woods, ranks sixth (50-4). A three-time state competitor, Woods is in the finals for the first time. He placed 13th a year ago in the shot, missing a berth in the finals by one position.

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Drew Knipfer knows what folks think when St. Joseph-Ogden and boys’ track are mentioned in the same sentence.

“We do well in the 4-by-8 relay,” Knipfer said. “That’s what we’re known for.”

For the sixth consecutive year, the Spartans have put together a 3,200-meter relay that has qualified for the 12-school state finals.

Only Knipfer and anchor runner Cole Johnson are returning from the foursome that finished 10th at state last spring.

“This is a surprise,” Knipfer said. “We lost a lot.”

Nick Poff and Clayton Nigg ran the first two legs for SJ-O, which posted the second-best qualifying time (8 minutes, 12.75 seconds), trailing only Sangamon Valley Conference rival St. Thomas More.

“We’re used to them being in front,” Knipfer said.

SJ-O’s sectional team champions have finalists in two field events — high jumper Eric Rydell and pole vaulter Matt Knipfer — along with 3,200 runner Braydon Crozier. All 3,200 runners only compete on Saturday.

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Paxton-Buckley-Loda junior Tyler Rubarts had plenty to think about as he took his position in the starting blocks for the final heat of the 110-meter high hurdles.

Two athletes who had sectional times that ranked among the top seven in Class 1A fell during their heat races and were unable to advance to the finals.

Based on his sectional time, Rubarts was seeded eighth.

“It kind of got me nervous,” he said. “I wanted to do the best I could and see what happened.”

Rubarts overcame the elements to secure the ninth and final starting spot for Saturday’s finals. His time was 15.59, just off his personal best of 15.48.

“I didn’t jump my best or run my best, but I’m proud that I made it here in three events,” Rubarts said.

Teammate Reno Jamison kept his season going, advancing with the ninth-best mark in the discus (143-5). Another Panther, Hayden Young, will compete in the 3,200 finals Saturday.

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For those surprised that Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley junior David Ricks had the third-best qualifying time (1:57.84) in the 800 meters after running almost nine seconds slower in sectionals, he can explain.

“I’d just run the 4-by-8 before and didn’t have much recovery time,” he said, “and I had to save some energy for the 4-by-4.”

He was able to go all out in Thursday’s preliminaries and came through with his best time of the spring. He can’t take all the credit.

“Coach (Mark) Ward does a great job of getting me in shape,” Ricks said, “and I have great teammates who push me in practice.”

One of those teammates is freshman Nick Meunier, who placed 17th in the 400 meters (52.04) in an event where there were no other ninth-graders among the top 30.

“No one wants to come just to be at state,” Meunier said. “Everyone wants to move on (to the finals), but I’m pretty happy with the outcome. I had a PR.”

He also had help in knowing what to expect. His sister, Sydni, was a three-event state champion a year ago as a senior.

“I didn’t know what to expect, and she laid it all out for me,” Nick Meunier said, “so I wasn’t the nervous freshman.”

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The on-and-off drizzle turned into a steady shower by the time

Oakwood/Armstrong-Potomac freshman Jon Davis had his turn to run the 1,600 meters.

“I was freaking out,” Davis said. “The weather was not complying today.”

His heat included the person with the fastest time from all sectionals, Carmi’s Michael Brown.

Davis took advantage.

“The people in front really carried me,” he said.

In the final 100 meters, Davis made a surge that resulted in the day’s closest race in the preliminaries.

He and Brown were clocked in 4:28.033 by the FAT system as they crossed the finish line. They advanced to Saturday’s finals with the fourth- and fifth-best times.

“I was going to be satisfied with fifth (in the heat),” Davis said. “To be here with these great athletes is an honor.

“I’m completely surprised. I’ve been nervous and cramping up, and the conditions couldn’t have been worse.”

Davis’ time was a personal best by more than a second.

The area will be well-represented in the 1,600 finals. St. Thomas More’s Nick Hess ran the second-best qualifying time and Schlarman’s Jesse Hahne reached the 12-runner finals for the second year in a row.

His time of 4:31.92 has him in 12th.

“I wasn’t pleased,” Hahne said, “but it’s hard to find someone who’s pleased unless they’ve set a PR. Qualifying for the finals was what this race was about.”

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Fifteen area schools have at least one competitor for Saturday’s finals, and they are spread between 12 (of the 18) events.

Events where area athletes missed the finals are the 200, 300 hurdles and 400 as well as the relays covering 400, 800 and 1,600 meters.

Urbana Uni High’s George Gunter qualified eighth in the 800 (1:59.57), an event where it took less than two minutes to advance.

Argenta-Oreana’s Austin Wenskunas is sixth in the long jump (21-3), Salt Fork’s Nick Hedges is eighth in the 100 (11.14) and Arcola’s Quinton Risley is 12th in the discus (139-10). Georgetown-Ridge Farm/Chrisman freshman Tyler Owen is among the 12 athletes who stayed in contention in the high jump by clearing 6-3.

Tuscola’s Eric Ponder is seeded sixth in the 3,200.

Hedges is a junior who last ran track in seventh grade. “After that, I never thought about track until the (football) coaches said I should run to get ready for football. That’s why I’m here. I’ve surprised myself and my coaches,” he said.

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Narrowly missing a berth in the finals were A-O’s Luke Tucker in the 300 hurdles (placing 10th), Unity’s Aaron Luesse in the 110 high hurdles (placing 11th), Unity’s Micah Johnson in the 100 (placing 12th), Salt Fork’s Hedges in the 200 (placing 12th), St. Thomas More’s Sam Powers in the 800 (placing 15th) and PBL’s Rubarts in the triple jump (placing 13th).

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