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Members of the Vipers Track Club participate in warmups prior to a Wednesday practice at the St. Thomas More track and field facility.

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CHAMPAIGN — Marques Lowe wasn’t exactly sure how his Vipers Track Club athletes would perform at the USA Track and Field Region 7 championships earlier this month.

In his ninth year running the Champaign-based program, which is unaffiliated with any state high schools, he acknowledged having “lost some heavy hitters” from a year prior.

So while 36 individuals advancing to the USATF Hershey National Junior Olympics may not match the all-time club record of 55, it left Lowe more than pleased ahead of the weeklong meet that begins today in Sacramento, Calif.

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Colin Likas/The News-Gazette Members of the Vipers Track Club participate in warmups prior to a Wednesday practice at the St. Thomas More track and field facility.

“It exceeded (my expectations),” Lowe said. “When we got to Region 7, it was just like, OK, let’s step up. We know who we’ve got to race. They weren’t worried. They didn’t fear anybody. They went out, and they did their thing.”

That craft now receives an even bigger stage, as the Vipers will face off against fellow talents hailing from California, Texas, Florida and elsewhere.

The Vipers are a diverse group as it pertains to East Central Illinois athletics — elementary through high school kids, from as close as Champaign and as far as Neoga and Warrensburg.

It’s not uncommon to hear the public address announcer at Eastern Illinois’ O’Brien Stadium, for the IHSA state track and field showcases, mention a youngster’s Viper ties.

“It’s pretty dope,” Lowe said. “We get a lot of flak, actually, because a lot of the coaches, they just don’t like summer track or they don’t agree with summer track. A lot of the kids that come to our program just really want to enhance their talent.”

And even though Lowe no longer has the services of various Division I-caliber competitors — Phillip Hall and Mason Barr (Illinois), Bobby Kapolnek (Louisville) and Quemarii Williams (Manhattan), to name a few — there still are familiar faces among the Vipers’ ranks.

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Colin Likas/The News-Gazette Kenli Nettles, an Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond rising senior, works out on hurdles Wednesday during a Vipers Track Club practice at the St. Thomas More track and field facility.

Perhaps the most recognizable is Kenli Nettles, an Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond rising senior who is less than two months removed from winning three Class 1A state championships.

She’s rated second in the age 17-18 girls’ 400-meter hurdles entering the national tournament, leading Lowe to believe Nettles has a good shot at All-America status via a top-eight display.

Other recent state qualifiers joining the Vipers in California are Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley’s Aidan Laughery and Delanie Dykes, Salt Fork’s Gracie Jessup and Iroquois West’s Connor Price.

“I don’t really have too many high expectations for my kids,” Lowe said. “The satisfaction for me is them getting there, and then being able to experience that they can compete at a national level at any age.”

Case and point is 10-year-old Keely Richmond, Lowe’s youngest national advancer. She’s slated to toe the line for the girls’ 9-10 800 and 1,500 runs.

“I look at stuff like that, when the athletes are young and they have something to put in a scrapbook,” Lowe said. “It’s like, man, I was a national competitor for USA Track and Field.”

Lowe’s influence over the state’s youth scene isn’t close to dissipating, either. He termed 2018-19 as “a rebuilding year” in which he and his staff acquired 35 new pupils.

There could be some impressive Viper performances this week, and it seems likely the team will continue to produce such efforts.

“Just across the board, you name them, you’ll probably never know until you ask me who are all Vipers,” Lowe said. “It’s a great feeling.”

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Colin Likas/The News-Gazette Members of the Vipers Track Club on Wednesday at the St. Thomas More track and field facility.

National flair

The Champaign-based Vipers Track Club is sending 36 athletes to the USA Track and Field Hershey National Junior Olympics, beginning today in Sacramento, Calif. A look at those who advanced:

ATHLETE(S)    AGE GROUP*    EVENT

Keely Richmond    G 9-10    800-meter run

        1,500-meter run

TaLeah Turner    G 11-12    80-meter hurdles

        Long jump

Ava Anderson    G 11-12    Shot put

        Discus

Terrell King    B 13-14    100-meter dash

        200-meter dash

Cedric Sabin    B 13-14    200-meter dash

Connor Nettles    B 13-14    400-meter dash

        High jump

Logan Beckmier    B 13-14    1,500-meter run

Jyaire Hill    B 13-14    400-meter relay

Cedric Sabin

Connor Nettles

Terrell King

Connor Nettles    B 13-14    1,600-meter relay

Logan Beckmier

Terrell King

Cedric Sabin

Jaeden Clark    B 13-14    1,600-meter relay

Davin Tietz

Jyaire Hill

Dashjantae Thomas

Brianna Dixon    G 13-14    100-meter hurdles

        200-meter hurdles

        High jump

Anna Barr    G 13-14    100-meter hurdles

        200-meter hurdles

Korah Palumbo    G 13-14    800-meter run

Aleigha Garrison    G 13-14    3,000-meter run

Anna Barr    G 13-14    1,600-meter relay

Korah Palumbo

Aleigha Garrison

Brianna Dixon

Aidan Laughery    B 15-16    200-meter dash

Jonah Singer    B 15-16    800-meter run

        1,500-meter run

Connor Price    B 15-16    2,000-meter steeplechase

        3,000-meter run

Jacob Tackett    B 15-16    400-meter relay

Jadon Robertson

Aidan Laughery

Ben Jessup

Miles Wood    B 15-16    1,600-meter relay

Jacob Tackett

Aidan Laughery

Connor Price

Jadon Robertson    B 15-16    1,600-meter relay

Jonah Singer

Ben Jessup

Malaki Verkler

Malaki Verkler    B 15-16    3,200-meter relay

Mitch Moran

Jadon Robertson

Miles Wood

Jadon Robertson    B 15-16    High jump

Cadi Hu    G 15-16    1,600-meter relay

Ashleigh Anderson

Brooke Oakley

Dina Hashash

Brynlee Keeran    G 15-16    High jump

        Triple jump

Katelyn Lang    G 15-16    Discus

Kodie Willis    B 17-18    Javelin

Kenli Nettles    G 17-18    100-meter hurdles

        400-meter hurdles

        High jump

        Heptathlon

Delanie Dykes    G 17-18    800-meter run

Delanie Dykes    G 17-18    1,600-meter relay

Brittney Oakley

Gracie Jessup

Taylor Fox

Cloe Clark    G 17-18    Javelin

*B for boys, G for girls

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).