CHARLESTON — St. Thomas More may have other track and field state champions, but it will never have another first like the school experienced Saturday.
Four runners helped the Sabers secure their inaugural state crown in the sport, a triumph in the 3,200-meter relay at the 119th boys’ state meet at Eastern Illinois.
STM’s Nick Hess, Sean Kelley, Jacob Helfrich and Sam Powers teamed up for a victory in the eight-lap relay.
“Our program was literally nothing four years ago when Coach (David) Behm got here,” Helfrich said. “Since then, we’ve moved to the top.”
With each athlete running their 800-meter legs in less than 2 minutes, the Sabers finished in 7 minutes, 57.96 seconds.
Running in the rain, STM fell short of the state record, but it didn’t matter.
“Records can be erased,” Hess said. “No one can take a state championship away.”
As the team prepared to collect its hardware, Kelley said, “I’m retiring. This is my last competitive race. It means a lot to end my career with three great teammates.”
Helfrich and Kelley are the seniors on the relay. Anchor runner Powers said it was special for the underclassmen to help the veterans make history.
“There’s nothing better than sending them out on top,” Powers said.
The drama for St. Thomas More in a race they won by more than nine seconds over runner-up Byron occurred before they took to the all-weather blue track. Fans in the stands recognized something was different when looking at their programs.
Only Powers was wearing the identification number that was listed in the program.
“This was our first time (in the finals),” Helfrich said. “We didn’t know we had to bring them back (from Thursday’s preliminaries), but that was the least of our worries.”
In an effort to strengthen the relay, Helfrich and Kelley made personal sacrifices.
Helfrich, running with a cracked bone in his foot, didn’t compete in the 1,600-meter prelims on Thursday. Kelley took himself out of the 3,200 on Saturday, a race that preceded the relay by less than one hour.
Helfrich said he will learn soon if surgery is needed on the foot. Though he said he was “hurting,” he added, “it feels better with a state championship.”
He reminded the media that he had predicted the success last May.
“I told (The News-Gazette’s) Marcus Jackson a year ago we’d have state champions coming,” Helfrich said.
Behm called the runners’ performance “courageous.” He included more than Helfrich’s injury. Powers was dealing with the frustration of not making the finals in the 800, where he’d been seeded fifth.
“It was great to see those guys compete,” Behm said. “To go out in that fashion is fantastic.”
Hess ran a 57-second opening 400 and kept the team near the lead. STM went ahead to stay during Kelley’s second leg. Helfrich and Powers increased the margin.
Last week, Kelley was a spectator at O’Brien Stadium as STM’s girls’ 3,200 relay — with his sister Regan on the anchor leg — placed second.
“To finish at the same level as her means a lot,” Sean Kelley said.
Hess returned to the track less than an hour after the relay race to earn a runner-up finish in the 3,200, running a career-best 9:26.03.
“I’m able to bounce back pretty well,” Hess said. “This is the second time I’ve set my PR coming after the 4-by-8.”
A third Saber, senior Kevin Carroll, ended his prep career like he started it: with a medal. He finished ninth in the triple jump, becoming the second medalist in the event in his family. His father, Mike, placed seventh for Centennial in 1980.
Kevin Carroll’s first state medal was with a relay. “It feels good to prove myself and get a medal on my own,” he said.
He said it was fitting that STM’s first state championship in track came from the 3,200 relay.
“The whole distance team is incredible,” Carroll said. “They carried this team.”
STM (tied for 10th) joined Villa Grove (tied for seventh) as area finishers among the 1A team leaders.