Mitch Wilson, PE/BTW Teacher | Head Boys Track Coach | firstname.lastname@example.org
It has taken us seven years to reach the state finals in the 4×200 relay. However, the journey did not end with a medal or a picture on the podium. Here is our story:
My first year back in my hometown. It was great to be back home. I had just finished up my only season at Centralia High School as the sprints coach. In 2012 our indoor 4×200 relay went 1:33.94 and finished 3rd at the Indoor Top Times meet. Outdoors we qualified our 4×100 relay and Stephonta Moore in the 200m dash for the IHSA State Meet. Stephonta went 22.37 at Sectionals and 22.31 at State in the prelims and held on to take 8th place in the finals and earn All State. The year before he ran 24.6 in the open 200 and hated track, he was going to play baseball his senior year. I am glad he didn’t.
As the new sprints coach at Rantoul I used all of my resources from Tony Holler and Chad Lakatos. I had the great pleasure of working with Chad at Edwardsville for two years and learned a lot about the sport of track and field. At Centralia and Rantoul we used the 4×200 method of standing in the middle of the zone and using the start of the acceleration zone (small red triangle) as our go mark. The only difference was that unlike Edwardsville and Centralia, Rantoul had not been a track town for about 14 years except for the one year in 2011 when we somehow got moved down to 1A and we won the Gibson City Sectional by 71 points (750 students was a 1A school in 2011, I still cannot explain that one).
In 2013 we scored a grand total of 224.25 points at all of our track meets combined. Our highest scorer that year was a baseball player by the name of Cord Church. Cord was a middle school state champion in the hurdles, he was a three sport athlete in high school, and was a Division 1 baseball player at Western Illinois University. We were lucky to have Cord on the team that year. He was our only State Qualifier in the 300 hurdles. He would have qualified in the 110 hurdles also but a hurdle was knocked in to his lane in the prelims and he took a tumble. No official that day saw the incident and he was not awarded a rerun. The top qualifier for the finals pulled his hamstring in the 4×100 relay and Cord was faster than the rest of the field. That’s how our sport goes sometimes. I had to watch the State track meet that year on my laptop from Carle Hospital because our oldest daughter Maddie was born on the day of prelims in 2013.
I did a lot of recruiting that first year back home and it was definitely a lot tougher than the previous schools I had been at. At Edwardsville and Centralia kids couldn’t wait for track season to come around. My first year at Rantoul was tough, we ran a season best of 1:35.4 in the 4×200 relay. I always reflect on the previous season and think what could I have done better. I thought to myself what did I get myself into. Don’t worry it gets better!
We hung our hat on the fact that we only graduated 3 seniors in 2013. We had some sophomores and juniors that had the capability of running fast in the next couple of years. Coach Holler often reminds people that speed grows like a tree. I was watering our tree every single day!
In 2014 we started to turn the corner. We scored 465 points that season, had two All State athletes, but the 4×200 relay was still a work in progress. One bad handoff here or there can take you out of a race. We improved our time from the year before to 1:34.56, but that won’t make it out of Sectionals. It was only good enough for 5th place at our Conference Track Meet.
We thought that 2015 was going to be the year we could get our 4×200 relay to State. Coach Holler uses the 23 second drill as a workout for his sprinters. We added a second for our guys the first couple of years at Rantoul to make it a 24 second drill. We changed it to the 23 second drill in 2017 because we thought our sprinters needed more of a challenge and we wanted to be able to compare our distances with other sprinters. However, for the 24 second drill this was our top distances in 2015: 206, 203, 202, 201, 200, and 199. We thought between the six of those guys we could put four of them together to make a pretty good 4×200 relay. The guy at 201 was our returning All State Long Jumper. He went 11.14 in the open 100 as a junior and long jumped 22’3.5”. He pulled his hamstring at the beginning of outdoor season and was not completely healthy until the Conference Track Meet. At the Sectional meet we made the decision for him to only jump and run in the 4×100 relay. The kid at 200m for the 24 second drill pulled his hamstring during indoor season and never worked to get better and gave up on the season. We still had four guys that were capable of running the 4×200. Our 206 guy was our 2nd leg at the Sectional Track meet and he was moving pretty fast making up the stagger. As he comes in to the exchange our 3rd leg sees how much faster he is running and takes off. Our 2nd leg realizes he might run our 3rd leg over and instead of running through the zone he starts to slow down thus allowing our 3rd leg to run away. Our assistant coach at that end of the track yells for our 3rd leg to back off so that we don’t run out of the zone. We get the baton but are now out of the race. Our anchor gets the baton and finishes in 4th place with a time of 1:33.40. We knew going in that it would be hard to beat Centennial and Central, but we thought we could hang in there for 3rd and possibly run State qualifying, which was 1:31.74. By the time our anchor got the baton 1st, 2nd, and 3rd had pulled away and the closest team to us was two seconds away. Needless to say we walked away disappointed but we were still two seconds faster than we were in 2013. We will always wonder what could have been if our long jumper had stayed healthy all season and if we wouldn’t have botched that 2nd exchange.
We graduated eight seniors in 2015 so we knew that this season would be filled with a bunch of young faces, but we did not anticipate the drama that would come with it. Here is what happened in 2016. On Wednesday, March 2nd, after practice, our second daughter Meredith decided she wanted to come into the world ten weeks early. She was born at 3lbs and 13oz and spent the next five weeks in the NICU. My schedule for those five weeks were wake up and go to school, practice, then meet my wife and drive down to Carle Hospital, stay as long as we could, and then go home to get a few hours of sleep. My parents would help us with our older daughter or sometimes she would travel with us and my wife and I would take turns going in to the NICU while the other one stayed in the waiting room with our other daughter. It was a crazy beautiful time of my life and I now have a great deal of respect for NICU nurses. They are the healthcare version of superheroes. Somehow I managed to fit track meets in during that time, but I do not have much recollection of what was going on at that time. During that same time our fastest senior sprinter made the decision that he was going to tell the coaches what races he was going to run and when he was going to scratch races. Let’s just say he was given an ultimatum and he decided he was no longer going to be a part of our team at the end of the indoor season. Our next fastest sprinter was a junior and went 206 in the 24 second drill that year. However, he thought it would be a good idea to get in a fight at lunch on the day of the Sectional Track Meet. Of course you know how that story ends. We plug in our alternate that night and hope for the best. Three sophomores and a freshman run 1:33.74 (1:33.62 was our PR in 2016) and we all go home hoping 2017 will be a little nicer to us. On a brighter note 2016 kicked off a string of now four consecutive state qualifying 4×400 relay teams.
We were right in the fact that 2017 would be much kinder to the Eagles. We scored 837.5 points, which is still the most we have scored in a season in the last seven years. This was a far better showing than the 224.25 points we managed in 2013. For the first time in many years we were Conference Champions in the 4×200 relay. In 2013 I hung a sign on the door going in to our locker room that reads “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” Do you recognize that quote? If not, Bo Schembechler made it famous in 1969 when he took over as head football coach for the Michigan Wolverines. When I arrived at Rantoul I saw guys coming and going all the time, quitting football, quitting basketball, quitting the track team, so I had the sign made and it is still there to this day. Five years after hanging that sign we had accumulated 10 Conference Champions including the 2017 4×200 relay team. We also received another gift in 2017, a stacked freshman class.
Then we get to the Sectional track meet and the 4×200 relay is up, the gun is up, it goes off, but there is a double gun. A false start, everyone is holding their breath, the crowd gasps for air. Urbana High School has false started and is out of the race. My heart sank for Urbana. I consider Coach Farokhi a coaching friend, as we have often talked about our struggles and dealing with testosterone driven young men. Urbana finished 2nd at the Indoor Top Times meet that season and had one of the top five 4×200 relay times in the state that year. Then I come back to reality, it’s now just a two team race between us and Mattoon. In between restarts I tell our lead leg to just take a deep breath and relax, listen for the gun don’t anticipate it. Mattoon won the race running 1:31.65 and we ran 1:31.75. However, that doesn’t matter because for the first time since Rantoul was in class 1A in 2011 we have a 4×200 relay going to the State Track meet! We get down to State and our guy’s eyes are as big as baseballs. I thought, “oh this is not good.” We ran two seconds slower than what we ran at Sectionals and we watched from the stands on Saturday as our 4×400 relay would go on to run an incredible race and take 7th place in the State and cutting two seconds off of their Sectional time. Although, 2017 didn’t end with any 4×200 relay medals from the state track meet we were now four seconds faster than we were in 2013. That tree is starting to grow and we were looking forward to 2018 as we would get to host the IHSA Sectional Track meet at Rantoul High School in front of our home fans.
Hosting the Sectional track meet is stressful and exciting all in one. This year we have some new teams in our Sectional including Decatur MacArthur and the lightning fast Ronald Reed. We also had Steven Migut from Tolono Unity who won three events and qualified for state in a fourth event that year. We knew that we would have to bring our A game this year because it was not going to be an easy road, and Urbana was back and fast as ever. To give you a picture of how competitive our Sectional was in 2018 there were four 4×100 relay teams that qualified out of our Sectional, four high jumpers, seven pole vaulters, four triple jumpers. Our 4×200 team had been pretty consistent all season always around the 1:31 to 1:32 mark still using the stand in the middle of the acceleration zone and use the small red triangle as your go mark. We were again Conference Champions in the 4×200 relay in the newly revamped Illini Prairie Conference, which combined the remaining teams from the Okaw Valley and the Corn Belt Conferences. I had a feeling that we could at least run state qualifying, which was 1:31.37. Well, I was wrong as MacArthur, Urbana, and us all crossed the line about the same time and we were left out of state in 2018 running 1:31.78. Since we were hosting the meet I stayed late Wednesday night getting stuff finished up for the next day. As I was leaving the school I saw our anchor leg walking around town with his girlfriend at about 11pm at night. I yelled out my window for him to get home and get to sleep. Who knows what time he actually got to sleep that night. Chad Lakatos once told me that perfumes and car fumes will ruin a young athlete.
On Saturday of the State track meet I watched the finals as I normally do. We had our 4×400 relay in the finals and Jerry Harper in the finals of the 400m. Something caught my eye as I watched the finals of the 4×200 relay. There was tiny Herscher High School in the finals. I consider Coach Macari a coaching friend as well. They come to our indoor and outdoor invites, he runs a great program, his coaches are always willing to help out at meets, and we email from time to time bouncing ideas off of each other. The gun goes off and then the race finishes and Herscher is 5th in the State in the 4×200 relay running 1:28.61. They ran 1:30 in the prelims. I thought to myself, he just took four guys who would probably be 800 runners for us and just got them to run 1:28. What is going on here? As soon as I got back to my computer the next week I emailed Coach Macari and congratulated him on a fine season, but I said I have one question; Would you share everything you know about the 4×200 relay with me? He replied with a lengthy email discussing everything he knows about the 4×200 relay and it instantly changed our team. We moved back to the small red triangle and use the whole acceleration zone now, we get steps just like we do in the 4×100 just not as many, we are usually between 17-19 steps, the back foot and the head have to move simultaneously, we still use Coach Holler’s approach of gears on a car. The 4×100 relay is 5th gear, pedal to the floor all the way, but the 4×200 relay starts in 3rd gear, goes to 4th gear, and by the time you receive the baton you should be getting ready to drop it in to 5th gear. We talk about wind being a factor, judging the speed of the incoming runner, we even talk about it is ok if you run up on the outgoing runner, don’t freak out, keep running until you see the hand and put the baton in there. We will watch film and fix the steps at practice.
Then came June 10th, 2018. I will never forget what I was doing and where I was the night I received the phone call that one of our strongest, most motivated athletes in the school had taken his own life. It sent shock waves through our team, our school, and our small town in Champaign County. At that moment I realized that all of the stuff we do in our lifetime doesn’t matter if we don’t love each other and build better relationships and friendships with those around us. Through tears I wrote an article last summer about who Donnell Robertson was as a young man. If you have not read it yet here is the link: http://itccca.com/?s=Donnell.
So, here we are and the 2019 season is about to begin. We are without Donnell, we graduated some pretty talented seniors in 2018, the anchor leg of our 4×100 relay and member of our 4×200 relay the previous two years will not be with the team in 2019 either. The week of Sectionals one of our relay members that ended up being on all three relays that qualified for State gets his hand smashed in a door and his pinky finger nail ripped off. Not just his pinky finger, but the pinky on the hand that he receives and carries the baton in.
However, in 2019 we received another gift, a very talented freshman class. By this time the culture is changing! In 2013 it was like pulling teeth to get kids to come out and run track, now I get bombarded with questions on when are we going to start training, can we go to this meet, did you see what so and so ran this weekend. We now have eight different uniform combinations we can wear at track meets, we do two overnight stays, one in Indiana during indoor season and one in Collinsville, IL the first weekend of May. We also took a group of guys down to the Winston Brown Invite in Edwardsville. We started a Facebook page in 2014 (Rantoul Track-Field), and since then there have been hundreds of pictures, videos, and posts made about the successes of our athletes. We now host an indoor track meet at the U of I Armory that had 26 schools represented last year, we host a 16 team outdoor invite in April, and for the first time this year we hosted the Rantoul 5k/Kid’s 1k the night before our home outdoor invite. Todd Wilson the principal at RTHS says, “tell your own story because no one else will.”
One practice in 2018 that I will always remember included our sprinters, jumpers, and hurdlers. The task for the day was to divide into 4×100 teams, take a few minutes to practice handoffs and steps, and then race. The guys went home arguing who had the best team, but it was all in good fun. It was great, I loved it, the kids did it all on their own, and whose idea was it, none other than Donnell Robertson. From what I was told, him and some other guys had been arguing all day about who was going to win this race.
It was in class, it was in the hallways, it was in the lunch room, and so I had to apologize to a few people for causing a disruption. I reminded a few of them though that this would have never happened in 2013. Our tree is growing!!
Even through all of the adversity listed at the beginning of this section we found a way to persevere. In 2019 our 4×200 relay took 2nd place at the Centennial Charger Indoor Invite running 1:34.89, we took 1st place at our indoor meet with our alternate in place going 1:35.94, we had a beautiful day at our outdoor invite running 1:31.72 taking 2nd place to Urbana. Then the rest of spring in Illinois happened and we did not get many good days after that. We won the Conference title again in the 4×200 relay going 1:32.10 in a cold and rainy day. We finally got some good weather when we went down to the Collinsville Invite and we ran 1:31.23 taking 2nd place to 3A Belleville East. Then the IHSA Sectional arrives and it is us vs. Urbana again. At the Sectional meet we switched our order so that Kayon Cunningham the athlete that lost his pinky nail, could get the baton in his left hand. We practice it like that for a couple days leading up to the meet, and then when I go to talk to the guys before their race they are practicing standing handoffs in the other order with Kayon getting the baton in his bad hand. I said, “what’s going on here guys,” and with the most serious face Kayon says, “I got this coach you won’t be disappointed.” We ran a great race going 1:30.18 and winning the sectional title in the 4×200 relay with two freshmen, a junior, and a senior. I have learned that seniors can do some amazing things when it comes to leaving a legacy if they have the right mindset. Everything I learned from Coach Macari took time. It was different than what he had been used to in the previous years. We had a bad handoff at Conference, we had an ok handoff at Collinsville, I thought we were going to have a bad handoff at Sectionals but our 3rd leg ran all the way through the zone and got our anchor the baton.
Now here comes the IHSA State meet! I learned in 2017 that our athletes were not used to waking up and competing early in the morning. Going to school early in the morning and sitting down in a desk they were used to, but competing at an elite level they were not. So the week of State if seniors are finished and our finals are done we try to find a day or two where we can practice early in the morning and get on the track and sprint. I think it has helped our guys mentally. We come in to the State meet with the 6th fastest seed time, so we knew if we can run fast and get the baton around the track with clean exchanges we should at least be in the top 9 for Saturday. Prelims: we get warmed up, I talk to the guys and tell them just get the baton around the track, enjoy this moment, run for each other, talk when you are in the tent. I tell them no matter the outcome I am proud of them and I will see them when they finish. The gun goes off, all exchanges are acceptable, our freshman anchor guts it out to the finish line and we run a 1:29.73 just edging out Carbondale at the line. I cannot believe this just happened! The same group of guys that ran 1:34.89 at our first indoor meet just ran 1:29.
This is the first 4×200 relay team to break 1:30 since our school record was set back in 1998, which is 1:27.9! We are going to the finals! Oh my gosh what a relief! We moved up, we now have the 4th fastest time going in to the State Finals!
Saturday May 25th, 2019: everyone wakes up in Taylor Hall. We go to breakfast as a team in the dining hall, we head back to the dorms to get ready to walk over to the track, our 4×100 relay is up first. They have a clean race and finish 7th, All State. Now we get to give a medal to Donnell Robertson’s father because Donnell was supposed to be on that relay this season. This was a goal from the beginning of the season. Get a medal in the 4×100 relay for Donnell. We have some down time now because the 3200 is now in the lineup on Saturday. We take the activity bus back to the dorm, grab some snacks and water, relax in the A/C for a while because this is the hottest it’s been all year. Now the 4×200 relay is up. It is the same four guys that started the season, the same four that qualified for Indoor Top Times, the same order, the same four that won Conference and Sectional titles. They warm up, stretch, and get in line to check in. I tell them the same thing, look around and take it all in, enjoy the atmosphere, especially our senior, talk in the tent, get the baton around the track, and I will see you after you finish. I make my way back up the bleachers at O’Brien Stadium to where our assistant coach and our cheering sections are at. They run on to the track, check their marks, the lead leg gets a couple of starts, gun is up, set, BANG, then BANG, BANG. Oh no a false start. Who is it? An IHSA official calmly walks over and stands in front of our lead leg and then I see him drop his head and walk off the track. My immediate reaction was what happened? I dropped my head, that feeling I had for Urbana in 2017 is there but it’s 100 times worse because it’s my team now. Everyone in our section was quiet. I pack up my things and start to make my way down the bleachers. In my mind I am thinking, is this real life, what in the world just happened, what am I going to say to a 15-year-old who just false started in the biggest track meet of his short career? I chose to say nothing about what he just did immediately. He is a smart kid, he knows, and I don’t want to make it worse than what it already is. His older brother is Kayon I spoke of before. Kayon was our 3rd leg and was standing almost right behind him when it happened at his exchange zone, so he was the first one there. By the time I got down the bleachers and to the guys he was obviously crying and upset. I gave him a hug and I chose to say I am proud of you Tayon. If it wasn’t for you, we would not be in the State Finals. As a freshman Tayon Swift helped us win a Conference title and a Sectional title in the 4×200 relay. On Friday in the prelims he split a 21.98 out of the blocks. In relays I always round up so a 22 second 200 out of the blocks and he looked amazing on Friday. Not many freshmen get to run at the State track meet let alone qualify for the finals. We have since talked about the incident and he admitted he was a little nervous, which is understandable. His left leg twitched and the official saw it and called him on it. We now have a story to tell for years to come. I always tell my guys before we go to State do not give an official a reason to disqualify you.
The rest of the afternoon went well for the Eagles. We got to watch Jerry Harper break a 45-year-old school record in the 400m dash on his way to a 3rd place finish behind two East St. Louis athletes, and then we got to finish our day watching our 4×400 relay break a 46-year-old school record in that event and finish 3rd place behind East St. Louis and Eureka. Kayon was able to bounce back and capture a medal and a school record in the 4×400 relay. The other three guys will have to wait a whole year to try and get some redemption in the 4×200 relay.
Jerry Harper, Dillion Harper, Treven Lewis, Tayon Swift, and Robert Buford all return in 2020. However, it is still to be determined what will happen to our 4×200 relay. Other athletes will have to step up! Robert was our anchor in 2019, but on August 3rd he ran a 49.64 in the open 400 at the AAU Junior Olympics. That would have put him in 4th place at the IHSA State meet in May behind teammate Jerry Harper. Robert and our other summer track athletes are coached by alumni George Washington. George was the 2015 State Runner-Up in the long jump behind Jamari Ward from Cahokia.
That is a brief glimpse of our journey in the 4×200 relay from 2013 to 2019, and the evolution of our team. From a 1:35.4 down to a 1:29.73! Did it take longer than I had anticipated, of course it did. We live in an instant gratification society these days, but remember speed grows like a tree. That big old oak tree didn’t start off 75 ft. tall.
I owe a big thank you to my wife Frankie Wilson and our distance coach Nick Cole for helping proof read this article. I often tell other coaches that good athletes make you look like a good coach, but so do good assistant coaches. My wife is a great assistant coach at home and Nick made our team so much better when he joined us during the 2016-2017 school year.