CHARLESTON — Johnny Leverenz quickly is becoming one of the state’s premier 800-meter runners.
The Danville High School junior solidified his position Friday, running the fastest qualifying time in the Class 3A division of the race at the IHSA state track and field meet at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium.
His school-record time of 1 minute, 53.60 seconds included a 55.6 split for the opening 400 meters. Of the 12 finalists in 3A, Leverenz was the swiftest by more than a quarter of a second.
His success is forcing him to do a re-evaluation of his running.
Entering the season, he said, “I thought of myself more as a long-distance runner.
Now, I’m thinking I’m more of a middle-distance runner. This race is definitely working out OK.”
He’s no Johnny-come-lately.
For three weeks early in the outdoor season, Leverenz was atop the state leaderboard with the best 800-meter time. He was seeded third at state based on times from last week’s sectionals.
And yet, Danville distance coach Todd Orvis said Leverenz found extra motivation for the prelims in the 119th annual state meet.
“One state media website didn’t mention him as one of the five or six who could win,” Orvis said. “He’ll use this as vindication.
“They (state media) pay attention north of I-80 and in the St. Louis suburbs. He’s trying to make a statement.”
In today’s championship race — scheduled for about 1:55 p.m. — Leverenz will try to become the school’s first male state champion since Theotto Lillard in the 300 hurdles in 2001.
Leverenz has mixed feelings about his ranking.
“I like being the underdog,” he said, “but I also like seeing my name up near the top.”
Orvis was not surprised to see Leverenz cut nearly a second off his previous school-record time.
“We knew there was room for improvement,” Orvis said. “The coaches were talking that he hadn’t been pushed to the (finish) line until today.”
The second-fastest 800 qualifier was Maine West’s Alex Gasca, who ran in the same heat as Leverenz.
Leverenz barely held off Gasca, who was timed in 1:53.73.
“The first lap felt slower, but the second lap was a killer,” Leverenz said, “especially the last 100 meters. That was tough.”
While Leverenz is settling in as a middle-distance standout, Orvis isn’t yet ready to proclaim the 800 as his best event even though Leverenz’s time from Friday ranks as the fourth best on the all-time area Honor Roll.
“I told him from Day 1 as a freshman I think his best race is the 2-mile,” Orvis said. “He disagrees, but I still believe that. He can run at top speed for a long period of time.
“In college, he won’t run many 800s. He’ll run the mile and the 3,000 (meters).”
Leverenz is one of two Vikings who will run today. Sophomore Caleb Hummer is in the 3,200, the only race that didn’t have preliminaries.
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Mahomet-Seymour was willing to take a gamble.
The Bulldogs’ move turned out to be a successful one.
In last week’s sectional, M-S set its school record in the 1,600 relay. The coaches decided to shift the order of the runners for the Class 2A state preliminaries.
The foursome of Matt Chupp, Jordan Rock, Sam Hohlfelder and Andrew Shroyer — in that order — stepped off another school record and posted the third-best qualifying time for today’s finals.
Their time of 3:22.87 ranks 10th on the all-time area Honor Roll.
The relay features a junior (Hohlfelder) and three seniors.
“Our goal since Day 1 has been to be all-state,” anchor runner Shroyer said.
“This is the second consecutive time we’ve run with our best guys healthy,” Rock said. “It’s finally coming together.”
The Bulldogs were seeded fifth at state based on sectional times.
The only anticipated change for today, Rock said, is an even better time.
“We’ll keep the order the same,” he said.
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Champaign Central’s DeVon Hood is a fast learner in the shot put.
He spent his freshman and sophomore years in high school playing baseball, alternating between right field and first base.
As a junior, he said, “I wanted to try something different.”
He took up track and field as a novice.
Hood completed his prep career with a 14th-place finish in the Class 2A shot (49-43/4). He was 21/2 inches from qualifying for today’s 12-man finals.
“I had fun,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d make it (to state). This shows you can accomplish anything.”
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M-S’ Andrew Roney took up track as a freshman. Now, he’s one of the state’s top pole vaulters.
There’s little similarity to his past and his future.
“I never did track in junior high,” Roney said. “Now, I’ll be doing it in college.”
He was recruited for track because the Bulldogs’ football coach, Keith Pogue, is also the head track and field coach.
“When I was a freshman, he asked if I did baseball,” Roney said. “When I said no, he said, ‘I’ll see you in track.’ ”
Roney gravitated to the pole vault because “I didn’t want to run around in circles.”
He became competitive almost immediately, clearing 13 feet as a freshman.
“I knew absolutely nothing,” Roney said. “I have a great coach, Jim Risley, who is an awesome guy and a great human being. He coached me up to 13 feet my freshman year. With his great coaching, I fell into it pretty quickly.”
He only needed to clear 13-9 Friday to make the 14-person finals. Roney’s career best is 15-3, which is 1 inch off the school record and which ranks as the fourth-best mark on the all-time area Honor Roll.
Roney will continue his vaulting career next school year at Harvard.
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Champaign Central’s 3,200 relay didn’t qualify for the finals, but that didn’t diminish the enthusiasm the lone senior on the unit felt about making his state debut.
“I’ve been trying to get here since my sophomore year,” Kendrell Thompson said. “This was a good experience for me, especially after the kind of football season we had.”
The other runners on the relay are freshman Ashton Hyatt, sophomore Isaac Kasten and junior Corey White.
Thompson believes they will continue to be heard from.
“I’m sure they’ll be back here next year,” Thompson said.
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Perhaps no area athlete had a busier 24 hours than Rantoul senior Cord Church.
He played in a Thursday night regional semifinal baseball game, a contest that required 14 innings and ended near 11 p.m. He was up bright and early Friday to travel to Charleston for the preliminaries in the 110 high hurdles.
His time was 40.79, which placed him 16th among the Class 2A competitors. The top nine moved on to the finals.
“It was awesome to make it down here,” Church said, “but my legs were tired from standing up at the game. I hit three or four of the hurdles.”
This was the first full year of running track for Church, a first baseman and outfielder who will continue his baseball career at Lincoln Trail College, where Eagles teammate Chris Deaville also will attend.
“This is the only year I’ve run the high hurdles,” said Church, who tried to do both spring sports as a sophomore but encountered numerous conflicts and had only a limited number of track meets.
His day wasn’t finished when the hurdles race ended.
Next on his schedule was Rantoul’s graduation, which took place Friday night.
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In all, six area athletes qualified for the finals in Class 2A events during the Friday prelims. Five of them are in field events.
Centennial senior Luke Vaughn is a finalist in the shot put and discus. Two area athletes are in the pole vault, M-S’ Roney and Prairie Central senior Dakota Cabbage. Another Hawk, senior Ian Briscoe, advanced in the high jump.
M-S will have the only area runners in action today. In addition to the 1,600 relay, senior Jonathan Schaap will compete in the 3,200, where he is seeded 10th. That race had no preliminaries Friday.
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Mahomet-Seymour senior Zaniel Zilewicz was a near miss for the finals in both of his individual events.
He was timed in 15.21 in the 110 high hurdles, placing 11th and missing the ninth qualifying spot by 0.05 second. In the high jump, he cleared 6-2 and tied for 15th.
The 14 advancers all cleared 6-3.
Zilewicz didn’t envision himself as one of the state’s best when the season began.
“I didn’t think I had a chance to be here (in the hurdles),” Zilewicz said, “but I’ve got the best coach I’ve ever seen (Gary Garrison). He knows what he’s doing. It was a thrill to be here.”