PEORIA – Kaneland boys cross country coach Chad Clarey was a runner for the program’s first team state championship in 1987.
As the first alternate at the Class A state meet, Clarey didn’t receive a championship medal as a top-seven competitor. Legendary coach Larry Eddington took off his medal and put it around Clarey’s neck.
“He gave that medal. He gave that moment to me,” Clarey said. “That’s who he was.“When he was laid to rest (December, 1994), I gave his medal back to him because he had earned it. I had hoped one day maybe I could come back and do something like that (coaching).”
The Knights did just that Saturday – and impressively – at the 2A state meet at Peoria’s Detweiller Park. Behind four top-25 all-staters, Kaneland (74 points) won by 21 points over Dixon. Sycamore took fifth place.
“I really can’t describe the feeling,” Kaneland's Daniel Occhipinti said. “(Last season) definitely put a chip on our shoulder. The seniors that graduated, we wanted to do this for them as much as for us. No one got down because we raced phenomenally last year but this year we really wanted that trophy.”
Seniors Austin Adams (8th, 16:10.64 for 3.0 miles), Occhipinti (18th, 15:23.68) and Ethan Walker (21st, 15:26.95) and junior Isaiah Dallal (24th, 15:27.83) were all-state, followed by seniors Ethan Neal (51st, 15:51.89), Ben Durbala (59th, 15:56.82) and junior Parker Malone (88th, 16:12.99).
Last year, Kaneland was one point from the third-place trophy and Adams 26th, one place from all-state.
“It’s been a year in the making now," Adams said. "A lot of motivation going into it because I was so close last year individually and as a team. Now, we’re all so happy. I’m super proud of everyone and it’s a dream come true today.”
The Knights were escorted back through the Kaneland communties, Sugar Grove, Kaneville, Elburn by firetrucks and a police escort, as a honking cavalry tailed the school bus carrying the Knights. At the high school, the team and its supporters gathered in the gym for a celebration.
“We were not expecting this many people," Dallal said. "It was so cool. It was such a great experience.”
Walker was the fifth runner a season ago at state and the third runner this time around, Saturday.
“I knew how much support we had going into this, but this was just a whole other level of love and support that we felt," Walker said.
After sharing the moment with Clarey at the celebration back in Maple Park, assistant coach Eric Baron, who has shared his share of memorable moments coaching track and cross country, couldn't help but bask in the moment.
“There’s nothing more rewarding as an educator to see a kids achieve a goal," Baron said. Teachers don’t get paid a ton of money, but there’s no amount of money that this is worth.”
Sycamore was fifth in the 2A boys race (237 points), one place better than 2018. Seniors Bryce Guerrettaz (29th, 15:34.72), 4.06 seconds from 25th, and Aaron Trier (40th, 15:44.46) were top-40, followed by junior Alex Taylor (75th, 16:07.66), senior Erik Handel (86th, 16:12.02) and juniors Jack Cambier (109th, 16:25.31), Paul Ruetten (137th, 16;38.04) and Kyle Horn (214th, 17:48.21).
“Collectively I think we ran really well and that’s what we were shooting for. We were shooting for more of a pack,” Guerrettaz said. “I would say we definitely ran better (at state) this year. I think we had more of a building experience from our summer training and that’s what Coach (Mike) Lambdin has been working on us for.”
The Kaneland girls also enjoyed history as senior Rachel Richtman (9th, 17:46.11) became their first runner to achieve four all-state finishes.
Richtman’s highest state finish was the first time in which she had to compete individually.
“This one has been especially hard for me. It’s the most pressure because I’m expected to do something and my teammates aren’t running next to me,” Richtman said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to do it now so pretty nervous but now that’s it over, it feels good. I can kind of relax a little bit and just kind of enjoy it.”
In 1A girls, Indian Creek freshman Jolee Larson (15th, personal-best 17:49.63) became her school’s first all-stater.
“I feel so honored to be here. I didn’t expect (all-state) at all,” Larson said. “I always knew it was there. We were talking about it at practices. But I never thought I could do it, really.”
“I just kept thinking, ‘I’ve worked so hard all season. I know it’s going to pay off,’ and it did.”
•Kaleb Carter contributed to this report