Track coaches are really busy in the spring. Then summer hits. Then we have time. Time to read, reflect, and write. One of the coolest things in my life is my connection with my son, Alec. Today, Alec sent me 4,788 words and asked me what I thought. Of course I liked it. You see, Alec is only 28 but he’s been a paid coach for seven years at three different schools. In addition, for someone who may not have ever truly read a book in high school or college, Alec has remarkable common sense when it comes to literature.
Alec has served as my proof-reader and chief adviser for my 50-some articles. My latest,”Us vs. Them”, was deemed “damn edgy” and “R-Rated” so it will never be published. Instead, I will re-frame my message and say everything I want to say in a kinder, gentler way.
The following is Alec’s story of Edwardsville’s 7 year ascent to the highest prize in Illinois track, the 3A State Championship. Alec has personally witnessed Edwardsville’s last five years, where the Tigers have averaged an amazing 34.8 points at the state meet. I am serving as his editor and publisher because I owe him. When Alec was concerned about the article’s length, I told him to say what he wanted to say. This article is not for sale. This article is Alec’s, through Alec’s eyes, written from Alec’s own thoughts, opinions, and emotions. It is what it is. Alec was concerned that more words are written about his hurdlers than the other athletes, but hey, this is written by the hurdle coach.
From the outside looking in, most coaches would think that Edwardsville has been on a 7 year joy ride. When you read this article, you will learn that good programs have such high expectations that 2nd-place can be a soul-crushing experience. Without further ado, here is Alec’s article.
Chad Lakatos moved to Edwardsville to become the head track coach in the summer of 2008. The Edwardsville track program took off and never looked back, placing 2nd at the Southwestern Conference meet and beat powerhouses East St. Louis, O’Fallon, and Belleville West.
Belleville West was 3rd in the state in 2009, but Edwardsville beat them at conference. In Chad’s 2nd season, Edwardsville won the conference meet for the first time in seven years. The Tigers not only won the SWC, they did it with a loaded fresh-soph group. Edwardsville scored 15 points at the state meet, the most scored by EHS since Stephen Pifer’s senior year, 2003.
That’s where I come in. Chad’s remarkable first two track seasons and his work as varsity wide-receiver’s coach in football had built some capital. Edwardsville was excited about the direction of the track program. Chad had an opening on his staff and needed a hurdle coach. I was hired a month later.
I knew Edwardsville was going in the right direction. I remembered feeling sorry for Chad when I saw his first team at EHS in 2009. Three months later, I was shocked to hear Edwardsville had placed second at the SWC meet.
MY FIRST YEAR AS A TIGER (2011)
Edwardsville came into the 2011 season looking like a state title contender.
- returned a 49.0 400 runner (Dameon Morgan)
- returned a 1:52.3 800 runner (Daniel Mazar)
- returned a sub-4:20 & sub 9:10 distance runner (Garrett Sweatt)
- returned an all underclass 42.5 4×1 team
- returned a sophomore 10.9 100 runner (Cameron James)
- returned a sophomore 10.7/21.9/22’4 guy (100/200/LJ) (Deonte Andresen)
- returned two 160 ft discus throwers (John Miller & Garrett Jensen)
The stars had lined up and everything was coming up roses.
If it were only that simple. Chad had won three state trophies and two state championships in his last three years at Herrin. I ran on Harrisburg trophy teams in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Our hunger for a trophy at Edwardsville was almost unbearable.
Then came some bad luck. Our 800-guy moved across the river to live with his dad at Rockwood Summit. Daniel Mazar went 1:50.87 and 4:12.51 in Missouri that year. We had a top-notch 4×1 and 4×2, but the week of the conference meet, our two-leg quit the team because of graduation. Huh? Edwardsville held gradation on the same day as the state meet. Our 2-leg chose to give up running at state to walk at graduation. Our second-best sprinter quit the team because of shin splints. We won our conference meet in a nail-biter and eeked out 15 points for the second-straight year at the state meet. We were devastated.
2011 was not a total loss. Our fresh-soph class was the best in school history. We were still young and returned the state’s #1 sprinter (Cameron James) and #1 distance runner (Garrett Sweatt). In the history of Illinois, I don’t think there’s ever been a team who could say that. We had depth, talent, experience, and leadership returning. 2012 was going to be the year. Nothing was going to stop us.
“THE YEAR” (2012)
At the first indoor meet of the year in 2012, the Normal West Wildcat Indoor, we announced our presence with a bang. Three IL #1 performances, two meet records, and six school records had us on cloud nine.
Before the season, we struck gold when we added Matt Martin to our track staff. Matt, the newly crowned head football coach, was named our throws coach. Our best shot putter was headed to Nebraska on a football scholarshoip. Matt Martin coaching his top football player seemed to be a no-brainer. Matt Martin’s impact on Vincent Valentine was incredible.
Vincent Valentine was 6’3 320 and could really move. He was a terrific basketball player and the strongest player on the football team. We were very frustrated when he threw 44-feet as a sophomore, then only 46-feet as a junior. In his first meet under Martin’s tutelage, Valentine was put in the “B” flight of an ABC meet because a sophomore broke our school record at the previous meet to earn the “A” spot. Valentine’s first throw of the season was a school-record 53’0.5”. Vincent Valentine went on to throw 57’3. Not many guys make an 11-foot jump in the shot from their junior to senior season.
Indoors, Cameron James repeatedly proved to be the top sprinter in the state.
- 6.40 in the 55, #1 IL
- 6.95 in the 60, #1 IL
- 22.18 in the 200, #1 IL
Indoors, Garrett Sweatt had the IL #1 time in the 3200, 9:07.25. Sweatt also ran 4:17.86 in the indoor mile.
How could we be more excited? Then, disaster struck. Our first outdoor meet was a dual with Belleville West on March 20th. We hoped to break our school record in the 4×2. Cameron James led off. After about 80 meters, he tore his hamstring. Cameron could not walk. Our “iron man” and team captain was down. You could hear a pin drop while Belleville West ran 1:28 without opposition.
Cameron’s rehab was a long one. He did not run again until May 5th, and even then, he had a long way to go. The hamstring is the curse of speed.
When one door closes, another opens. Bennett Gray was the sprinter who quit in 2011 due to shin splints. Bennett was immature but a great kid. In the fall, he lasted only two football practices before quitting the team. After quitting track and football , we weren’t counting on him. In 2012, he came back hungry. In the first 100m dash of his life, Bennett Gray ran an FAT 10.94 to win the race. He ran 10.65 at Sectional.
The wild card was Josh White. After his sophomore track season, Josh decided to specialize as a basketball player. Despite triple jumping 43-feet and high jumping 6’2 as a sophomore, he gave it up. After the best recruiting pitch ever, Josh agreed to come out for track as long as no 400’s were involved. We agreed. In his second meet of the year, Josh high jumped 6’7 and triple jumped 44-feet. Josh White triple jumped 46’10 at Sectional but failed to qualify in the high jump.
Cameron James was able to gut it out the last month of the season. Although noticeably not at his best, Cameron led off school record 4×1 and 4×2 with times of 41.67 (IL#1 4×1) and 1:27.99 (IL #6 4×2) at sectionals. Cameron placed 8th at Sectional but qualified based on time. We swallowed our pride and scratched him from the 100 at State. The best returning sprinter in Illinois would not compete in the 100 or 200 in Charleston.
The state prelims could not have gone much better for us. Our 4×1 had a bad exchange but we made finals.
The next day, our 4×1 placed 3rd. Bennett Gray was seeded 1st in the 100 after prelims but finished 3rd. Garrett Sweatt could have placed top-two in the 3200 but got 4th. I know, I know … these places are not that bad. We’ll take it. We are still in the hunt. We had a positive surprise in the 4×2, placing 4th. Garrett Jensen threw the discus a PR 168’5 and placed 3rd. We were on pace to win the state meet the hard way, not winning any events.
Then, disaster struck. Tom Schuette went 14’9 with no misses on Friday. Schuette was ready to vault 16’0 in the finals. Instead, he went 14’6 and got 10th. Josh White had tripled 46’6 against the wind in prelims to rank 4th. Josh was looking better than ever during warm ups on Saturday. With 30mph winds at his back, we had a sneaky feeling that he was going to win the whole thing. On his last warm up, he tore his MCL. Josh White watched as the entire flight jumped with the wind at their backs. Five jumpers passed him, knocking him down to 9th.
Our last event on the track was that 4th place in the 4×2. The pole vault and triple jump news came right after. We were stuck on 40 points with Lake Park sitting pretty at 39 with two high jumpers remaining. We had Julian Harvey remaining in the high jump finals but Julian was a long shot to score. Oak Park River Forest was closing in. We felt our state championship slipping through our fingers, but there was nothing we could do. Julian Harvey placed 8th, but Lake Park’s placed 4th and 7th, leading to the final score: Lake Park 48, Edwardsville 42.
We celebrated our school’s highest ever finish and most points ever scored, but deep down we were crushed. The 2nd Place trophy was bittersweet. We had to live with the pain of letting a chance of a lifetime slip away. The what-ifs haunted us for the next nine months.
THERE’S ALWAYS NEXT YEAR (2013)
Bennett Gray was a dominant force in football after his terrific junior track season. There aren’t many running backs in Illinois who ran 10.65 at the state meet as a junior.
We had a move-in that was a game changer. Isaiah Michl came from Sparta where he won three Class A state medals as a freshman. Craig James, the younger brother of Cameron, was a blossoming junior. All-Stater Julian Harvey returned. We were in the trophy hunt again.
Bennett Gray did not make it through the season. Success is difficult for some kids. Bennett experienced a change in his priorities and became undisciplined, unfocused, and uncoachable. Bennett Gray pulled his hamstring in early April and never recovered. We did everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, we could to get Bennett refocused and back on track, but it wasn’t going to happen. He came back for the conference meet where we inserted him into the 4×1. He did not finish the race and ruined our conference championship streak in the process. We never saw him again.
We still found a way to be in the trophy hunt. Julian Harvey had marks of 6’6, 22’11, and 46’0 in the three jumps. Julian made it to finals in all three and was poised to finish off his stellar senior season. However, in his last prelim jump in the triple, Julian sustained a heel bruise, a kiss of death for a jumper. He finished 10th in the LJ, 6th in the TJ, and gutted out an 8th place finish in the high jump, despite limping through his approach.
Isaiah Michl became a star. He took up hurdling and was ranked in the top-5 in the 300s all season. He was consistent and dependable. Isaiah was mature beyond his years and the most responsible athlete on the team. When Isaiah Michl reported to the check in tent after second call, he was told he had been disqualified even though the final call had not been made. A sure thing, top-5 finished was stolen from us. Our 4×4 could have been state champions, but our team of three sophomores and a junior folded against the pressure in finals and placed 8th. Edwardsville placed 8th as a team. Another year with high hopes, another disappointing finish.
IS THIS THE YEAR? (2014)
By 2014, we knew to temper our expectations, but we returned nearly everyone from the previous year. We were the team to beat entering the season. Once again, we had an early season hamstring injury. Our sprint relay anchor leg, Rene’ Perry (ran splits of 10.0, 21.4, and 49.2 the year before at state as a sophomore), was on the shelf in April. We were so deep that even without him, in our first major invite in early April, we went 42.09 in the 4×1, 14.55 and 14.58 in the 110s, 37.99 and 38.13 in the 300s, 22’11 in the LJ, and 3:25.0 in the 4×4. We were still the team to beat.
In 2014, the major disaster was a curious one. It didn’t happen at one moment. Not even one meet. Isaiah Michl developed hamstring soreness after running at the Penn Relays. We sat him out for a week and it did not go away. It never went away. We had to take it easy on him the rest of the season. Isaiah was able to run the 300s and the 4×1 and do it well, but Isaiah healthy would have ran mid-37s, 14-low, and 48-low in the 4×4.
We placed 2nd at the state meet despite the 2-event limitation on Isaiah Michl. The heart and soul of our team, Craig James, carried our team all year. We won the state title in the 4×1 with the 2nd fastest time in state history (now 3rd), 41.46. We set numerous school records and took home another second-place trophy. Once again, deep down we were crushed.
WILL IT EVER HAPPEN? (2015)
As I said above, Isaiah’s hamstring issue never went away. He suffered through the football season. Isaiah had an encouraging winter speed training and went through indoor season without too much issue. Isaiah Michl shocked the track and field world when he ran 37.13 in his first 300 race in 37 degree weather in late March. Spring break followed the 37.13 performance and Isaiah had a very light week (just one hurdle workout). The week after spring break, Isaiah started feeling that uncomfortable tightness again. In spite of the tightness, Isaiah wanted to at least run the 300s at Belleville West. Isaiah looked like a future Olympian, setting personal records to every single hurdle. On touchdown of his 7th hurdle, his time was a record 30.7. The other competitors seemed to be a full hurdle behind. As his lead leg extended off that 7th hurdle Isaiah felt an excruciating pain, limped the last 45 meters, and switched lead legs on the final hurdle to prevent further injury. Despite his disastrous finish, Isaiah ran 38.16 and won the race by 20 meters.
Our sprint relay anchor specialist for the last two seasons, Rene’ Perry, injured his hamstring as well (again). Our returning All-State long jumper and 4×1-4×2 guy, Fontez Davis, was having “senior problems”. Sometimes seniors lose their desire and their focus. We were in shambles. Then AJ Epenesa happened.
If you haven’t heard of AJ Epenesa, I am surprised you are even reading this. AJ is the #2 ranked football player in the nation for the 2017 class. AJ also has division-one basketball offers. We begged AJ to throw shot and disc the previous year (AJ’s freshman year). Out of respect for Coach Martin, he agreed. As a freshman 1st-year thrower, AJ threw 47’3 and 146’2 after a late start due to basketball. Between May of 2014 and March of 2015, AJ Epenesa had never practiced the shot or disc, he played varsity football and varsity basketball.
Coach Martin attempted to shield AJ from everyone’s high expectations, but AJ wouldn’t play along. AJ Epenesa started shattering records within 2 weeks of his first throws practice. Check out his first four meets: 158, 166, 180, 187. AJ went on to throw 194’3 in the rain at the Collinsville Invite to become the #1 sophomore discus thrower in the nation and #7 overall. 194’3 was the 7th best throw in the history of the state.
Then, Fontez Davis had an awakening. Fontez exploded at the Madison County meet and never looked back. Fontez Davis broke the long jump school record the next weekend with a 23’3 at the Collinsville Invite. We also won the 4×1 out of lane-1 in the rain with Fontez running 2nd. Fontez grew into a warrior, running four events in almost every meet from that point on.
Wes Schoenthal was the heart and soul of this team. In a season of turmoil, unknowns, and inconsistencies, Wes was the opposite. Wes ran personal records in every single meet. Wes Schoenthal was undefeated in 2015 until he placed 2nd at sectionals in the 800. Think about that for a minute. Wes Schoenthal lost only two races all year: two 2nd place finishes (800 at Sectional, 800 at State).
Travis Anderson was originally from Edwardsville but moved to Hawaii for his 8th grade and freshman school years. Travis was a three sport star as a freshman in Hawaii (15.05 & 40.64 in hurdles, 6’4 & 21’4 in HJ, LJ). Travis moved back to Edwardsville for his sophomore year. He immediately began tearing up the fresh-soph record books. As outdoor season started, Travis began to slump. He had foot and lower back issues and did not feel 100% throughout the month of April.
Travis Anderson’s lackluster April was followed by the most shocking month of May I have ever witnessed. In a three week period, Travis ran personal records of 14.88, 14.83, 14..52, 14.20, and 13.98. Wow.
On a beautiful day (May 2nd) at Glenbard West, Travis ran a 14.88, setting our fresh-soph school record. At the next meet, he ran a 14.83 against the wind, narrowly losing to Korrion Session of Cahokia. Five days later at conference, the overwhelming favorite was Korrion’s brother William Session from Belleville East. William Session injured his hamstring in the 4×1 and could not run the 110s. The red carpet was laid out for Travis and he delivered with a landslide victory running a PR 14.52.
14.52 in the highs will win you a state medal, but how would Travis run from behind when William Session returned at Sectional? Young guys only run their best when they have the lead. We worked on nothing but starts and the first hurdle the next nine days. We wanted him to be ahead after one hurdle. What Travis did at sectionals was unimaginable.
Travis has a lot of room for improvement in his hurdle form. He has some critical flaws that I assumed would keep him from being an elite hurdler for the time being. Travis rarely ran a clean hurdle race. At sectionals, I watched Travis warm up and he looked awful. Travis rarely comes to me for reassurance (or to reassure me), but after warmups he asked me, “Did that look good? It felt really good.” I lied and told him he looked great. I was filled with dread. In the prelims, Travis had a good start and a clean first hurdle, just like we practiced and then, WOOSH, he finds another gear. Travis kept his momentum going all the way through the finish line in a very clean race and won by a large margin. I remember thinking, that may be another personal record. We waited for the time to come up on the scoreboard. 14.20 … WOW … how did this happen? I just hope he can come close to 14.20 in the finals and not let Session mess him up.
Travis ran on our sectional 4×1 that ran the #1 time in IL. 12 minutes later, it was time for the finals of the 110 high hurdles. I was worried about his lack of rest. He wasn’t. Travis was too hyped about the 4×1 to care. The start of the race went according to plan. Travis was in the lead at the first hurdle. Then Session made his patented move where he telekinetically leaps forward like a glitch in a video game. Session made his move but Anderson was still with him. Session and Anderson hurdled in unison, each hurdle faster than the previous. It was a two-man race. It looked like Travis out-leaned Session. Edwardsville fans started to celebrate the upset. The announcer thought Anderson had won. We waited. The scoreboard took an eternity. Then, it came up. 13.98 for both Session and Anderson with Session getting the nod. Travis Anderson had just ran the 11th best IL sectional hurdle time in past 20 years. Stunning.
In 2014, I thought our sectional performance could not get any better. I was wrong. 2015 was better. Thirteen events qualified. We had a 14-foot pole vaulter and two 45-foot triple jumpers fail to qualify, but it would have been a long shot for them to score at state anyway. Everything else went great. For me, Isaiah Michl qualifying in the 300 hurdles was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had as a coach. Isaiah had not run a hurdle race since April 11th. One week before Sectional, Isaiah Michl could not jog without pain.
Wes Schoenthal qualified and was ranked in the top 5 of the 800 and 1600, but we decided to focus on the 800 at the state meet. That left us with 12 event qualifiers. Ten events competed in the state prelims, ten events qualified for finals. I don’t think that has ever been done. We also had two guys in the 3200 who didn’t have to run in the prelims. Edwardsville had 12 events alive in the state finals.
Fontez Davis was our first competitor and wasted little time getting the momentum going. Fontez jumped a school record 23’5 on his first long jump and finished the day with a best of 23’6. He was in first by a half a foot. I was so excited I sprinted to shot put to tell coach Martin and Epenesa. AJ was never overly impressive in the shot put. He threw 53’0 in early April and never came close to that until he threw 53’1 at sectionals. After hearing about Fontez, AJ Epenesa threw an inspired 53’9.25 on his next throw.
The next eight events took care of business. Sophomore Justin White, who was a long shot to even make it out of sectionals, jumped a career-best 6’3 to qualify for state, then jumped 6’4 to qualify for the state finals. Isaiah Michl limped to a 4th place finish in his prelim heat, but qualified based on time. We were happy with it. Our 4×4 capped the day off with a come from behind victory and a school record. We were in good position, really good.
Evanston was also in great position. We competed against them at two different meets during the year and knew they were legit. Neuqua Valley qualified six events and had a chance to win four and be top five in two more. We had a lot more work to do in finals.
Fontez was very sore on Saturday, but there was no stopping him. We wanted to preserve him as much as possible, so he skipped every round of jumps that no one passed him. No one came close. Fontez Davis was the 2015 state champ without a single jump in the finals.
The 4×1 was a scary race. By our calculations, we needed a top-four finish. We barely finished 4th despite a dangerously late 2nd exchange. Our worst 4×1 finish in the last four years upset Coach Lakatos, but we had taken care of business.
Travis Anderson was all set for his rematch with William Session. Once again, they were even after two hurdles. Travis had a near catastrophe at the third hurdle. Session was now out of reach and Travis was in survival mode. Miraculously, Travis came back and won the silver medal.
The next race was our favorite of the day. Everyone loved Wes Schoenthal. Even if you didn’t know him, you probably loved watching him compete. The week before at sectionals, Heath Warren of Springfield dominated Wes. There’s no sugar coating it. Wes never had a chance at Sectional. I do recall saying it would be tough to beat Wes twice. Heath Warren and Ty Moss of Neuqua looked like they could go under 1:51.00. We just hoped Wes would take care of business and finish 3rd or 4th. Moss and Warren ran under 53 seconds to the first 400. Wes was buried in 7th. It was scary but we all trusted Wes. We knew he was too strong, too smart, and too fast to disappoint. Wes began picking off runners left and right. With 100 meters to go, Warren and Moss were 20-25 meters ahead. Wes finished with a furious comeback to pass Warren and almost beat Moss.
Isaiah Michl was also very sore from the day before. His poise and resolve never wavered. You could tell on his face that he was going to finish his high school career in a big way. With only a handful of 300 hurdle workouts all season, he stuttered on almost every hurdle. His over-the-hurdle form was herky-jerky due to his pain. Somehow he slowly but surely made up staggers and won the bronze medal running 38.00. Isaiah Michl sealed our first State Championship. I will never forget the moment I saw Isaiah after the race. We both just shook our heads and laughed. We did it.
Epenesa was sitting in first after the prelims in the discus with a relatively weak throw of 180’10. We knew 180 was not going to win the discus. Surprisingly, 180’10 still led the field with one round of throws remaining. In the final round, Lake Park’s Mike Prestigiacomo threw 188. AJ was now in 2nd. Then, Ricky Nelson of Belleville West, a conference rival and friend of the program did something amazing. Nelson bettered his own personal record by 16 feet, throwing 192’3. Ricky Nelson was the top thrower in the conference coming into the season and had to watch AJ Epenesa steal his thunder at meet after meet. The tables had now turned. Nelson stole AJ’s thunder. We were all very curious how AJ Epenesa would respond. He did not disappoint. AJ unleashed his 2nd best throw of the year, 191’7. AJ won the silver medal. The gold could not have gone to a better person than Ricky Nelson of Belleville West.
Fontez Davis and Suleman Bazai’s last race of their career would be the final race of the day, the 4×4. Fontez and Suleman went out in style with the two best 4×4 splits in school history (49.0 and 48.9). In the middle of the race, the clouds opened and the rain came. Suleman Bazai had to come from behind to place 7th in the fastest top-to-bottom 4×4 final in state history. You will never see a team cheer louder for a 7th place finish.
People asked us why we celebrated at the end of the 4×4, instead of earlier when we had clinched the championship. Maybe it was because we had been through so much. Maybe it didn’t seem over until the 4×4. I felt like I totally lost control over my body during that 4×4. I was jumping up and down and screaming like a mad man. It was an out-of-body experience.
The rain seemed to wash away the crap of the last five years. We are state champions.
Edwardsville Hurdle Coach