Plenty of hardware for Unity girls, M-S boys

Plenty of hardware for Unity girls, M-S boys

PEORIA — Jordan Harmon's legs and lungs grew more tired than normal in the second half of Saturday's Class 1A State cross-country meet, a consequence of the two weeks she was forced to take off due to a foot injury. Then, she heard the voice of a runner passing her.

"Come on Jordan, you've got this," Unity eammate Caroline Bachert said through heavy breaths, an action not out of the ordinary for the freshman.

"I couldn't get the words out to say anything back," she said, "but I knew she was just going to be stronger at the finish."

In a meet where nearly every place had an effect on the result, Bachert finished 13th overall and fifth in the team race in 18 minutes, 8 seconds while Harmon took 21st overall and 12th in the team contest in 18:23 to lead Unity to its second 1A state title in three years. Freshman Evelyn Atkins landed the 25th and final All-State spot in 18:25, and Kylie Decker and Audrey Hancock rounded out the scoring with 46th- and 70th-place finishes as the Rockets scored 108 points to finish two spots clear of conference rival St. Joseph-Ogden.

"The team just picked up exactly where they needed to, every single one of them," coach Kara Leaman said. "To win by two points is just incredible."

Just two years ago, the Rockets won a state championship with a group that was mostly freshman. That time, it was Harmon, who led the way at her first state meet, and Bachert could hardly imagine that she'd join that group, let alone lead it.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, we have state champions in the same district as us,'" Bachert said. "I was so amazed. It was so cool ... I didn't imagine I would be on varsity. I was hoping I could be an alternate so I could still come."

But as she rounded one of the races' final turns and urged her older teammate on, the fact that she'd arrived at a higher level than she'd ever dreamed sunk in.

"I was pumped up," she said. "Of course I was tired, but I was ready to compete."

Harmon may have finished a few spots shy of her freshman and sophomore year performances, but given the circumstances, her ability to simply run the race turned the tide toward Unity.

"Jordan was a huge wild card," Leaman said. "We didn't know what she was going to put forth today ... Honestly the only thing I could do the whole time was pray. I just didn't know what else to do, because I was worried about her."

In the end, she finished exactly where she needed to finish, just like the rest of her teammates, although it took them awhile to figure out

"It's crazy," Leaman said. "This was so close, and I couldn't be more proud of the girls as a team today."


Bulldogs cool under pressure

Mahomet-Seymour coach Neal Garrison doesn't believe in heaping needless pressure onto his athletes.

But as he counted runners at the two-mile mark of Saturday's Class 2A boys' state cross country meet, desperation set in as the Bulldogs' chances of winning their second straight state seemingly slipped away. As his fourth and fifth runners, Bryson Keeble and Evan Burge, passed him by, he made the stakes clear.

"I said, 'We've got to get 20 more guys each,'" Garrison said. "I felt bad because I'm trying not to put pressure on them, but it's do or die in that moment."

They did enough and then some. After Mathias Powell (fourth overall, 14:45), Riley Fortune (sixth overall, 14:48) and Ryan Hodge (ninth overall, 15:02), put up low numbers, Keeble took 45th and Burge finished 71st to give the Bulldogs another Class 2A state title in comfortable fashion.

A year ago, the Bulldogs' state championship was never in doubt, practically from the first day of the season. Mahomet-Seymour had seven runners who came into the state meet with times of 15:03 or better and won by 76 points with a group that could finish in virtually any order.

This year, the Bulldogs' spread was larger, meaning each athlete was virtually irreplaceable. In a way, the uncertainty made this year's state title sweeter.

"It felt like a formality last year," Powell said. "It didn't feel like a formality this year ... It's been a really up-and-down season, and we've gone back and forth on how the team's been doing, but we were ready to race today. So I was just really really happy after the race today. It was nice to know that we had actually pulled it off."

Mahomet-Seymour didn't even win its regional two weekends ago, losing to Normal University on a tie-breaker. The Bulldogs, though, entered Saturday's race with confidence.

"When regionals rolled around, we knew that we didn't run as well as we wanted to, and sectionals we ran better," Fortune said. "We were really confident today knowing that we had so much left in us ... It was big to know that there were other teams (in the mix), so we knew we were going to have competition. I feel like U-High had a really good chance."

The singular state championship was reward enough, but to Garrison, that wasn't the most special part of Saturday's win. As the Bulldogs found out they won another title, they were surrounded by a horde of parents along with several alumni, who were among the former runners who wrote letters to the team throughout the year with words of encouragement.

This wasn't simply a state title. It was an affirmation that the Bulldogs, who have won their first four state trophies over the last four years, aren't simply the best team in the state. They're a top-tier program, year-in and year-out.

"Any time it happens once, it's just sort of a dream come true, but the second time just solidifies how hard these parents have worked, how the alumni built a program more than just building a one-hit wonder," Garrison said. "You'll see a lot of programs that have a few good guys and when they're gone, it just falls apart, but these guys have done a good job mentoring the younger guys. It's been a good experience to be a part of the community these guys have built. I'm definitely fortunate to be a part of this."