PBL boys track and field looks to continue success despite bump-up to Class 2A

PAXTON -- The expectations have not changed for the Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School boys track and field team for the 2019 season. 
Last year, PBL finished second in the IHSA Class 1A Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Sectional to eventual state-champion Ridgeview after winning its fourth Twin Valley Conference championship in five years. The Panthers' second-place finish at sectionals and fourth-place finish the year prior followed a streak of five consecutive sectional championships.
"Our plans are still to win conference and to win sectionals," PBL head coach Dustin Franckey said. "Our plans still stand. I think we've got a great team top to bottom, and I want us to be one of the best teams in our sectional."
One thing that has changed, however, is the class in which the Panthers will compete in sectionals as the school's track programs have been bumped up from 1A to 2A. PBL HIgh School has an enrollment of 472, and the IHSA's Class 2A classification for track and field ranges from 471.01-1,299.
"We've got a brief, probably one- or two-year enrollment bump. After the juniors graduate, we're back down to right at, or under, 100 students per grade, so we'll be well within 1A again," Franckey said.
"I think it's going to be a turning point for this program to take us to the next level. Demographically, we're going to stay 1A unless we have some sort of major residential development or industry move to town. I think it's going to really sharpen the iron and make us a much better track program for when we go back down to 1A. It's a great thing for us."
As of Thursday, PBL has competed in four indoor meets, including last Saturday's Rantoul Indoor Invite, in which it finished seventh as a team out of 24 squads.
"I'm happy with the progress we're making," Franckey said. "A number of the guys have picked up where they left off last year, which is a testament to their fitness level and work in the offseason."
Garrett Bachtold returs for his senior year after finishing second in the 1A state meet last year in the pole vault with a height of 14-9.
Bachtold finished first with a vault of 13-6 in the first meet of PBL's season at the Feb. 21 Uni High Mini meet. On March 6, Bachtold finished first with a height of 14-3.
In the Rantoul Indoor Invite, he finished second with a height of 13-6.
"He has been working very hard in the offseason," Franckey said. "As he progresses with his height, he's got to change poles, so it takes a little getting used to when you're going up 14-plus feet in the air, but starting the season off indoors, he's done outstanding with his current pole setup, and I think he's going to have a great outdoor season." 
Bachtold also has been a fill-in for the 4x200 relay team this season.
"He's fast and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the team does the best that it can," Franckey said.
T.J. Jones, who is also in his senior season, finished fifth in the long jump and triple jump at the Rantoul Indoor Invite with leaps of 19-4 and 38-9, respectively. At Wednesday's Uni High Mini Meet, Jones finished first in the long jump with a leap of 19-5 1/2 and fourth in the triple jump with a leap of 37-10.
"T.J.'s really stepping into the role of being our man for our jumps," Franckey said. "He's still working with getting his steps, but he's jumping well and not hitting the board. It's there. We're really looking forward to seeing how he progresses this season in triple and long jump. He's making great progress, and so far, so good."
The Panthers' distance crew is coming off a cross country season in which PBL finished 20th at the 1A state meet. 
"The distance crew's doing great," Franckey said.
Jordan Giese, who is in his senior year, ran a lifetime-best time of 2:07.17 in the 800-meter run in last Wednesday's meet, good enough for second place, "after being sick for almost a full week," Franckey said.
"He's been working his tail off in the offseason. He's super-hungry, and it shows. He's looking to punch his ticket to indoor state individually," Franckey added. "I think he's in the top 15 right now, right on the cusp of making it. He and I both think that it's probably going to take a time of 2:04 or 2:05 to make it in. I think he has that in him, so we'll see what he does on Saturday with the loaded field that'll be down in Charleston."
Alec St. Julien, another senior, ran lifetime-best time by three seconds on Wednesday with a fourth-place time of 2:07.49 in the 800-meter run. 
"He has ran some great 4x400 and 4x800 splits for us," Franckey said. "He haven't been training for the 800 at all. It's been all-volume still -- kind of gearing him up toward the two-mile and mile runs, knowing that he's got 400 speed, which worked out great last night."
Ryder James, a freshman who earned a 12th-place state medal for the cross country team last fall, finished third in the 800-meter run with a time of 2:06.43. He also placed second in the 3,200-meter run with a time of 9:59.99 in the Rantoul Indoor Invite.
"He has ran outstanding," Franckey said.. We're just continuing to train in volume. We're not doing a whole lot of speed work right now. It's pretty exciting to see how fast they're running without the aerobic work. I think it'll be a pretty fun season to watch."
According to Franckey, James is ranked in the top 10 in two-mile run and second-fastest freshman in the state in two-mile run, while also being 15th in the 1,600-meter run after finishing fifth with a time of 4:39.62 in the Uni Mini Meet on Feb. 20.
Paul Cleary ran a lifetime-best 800-meter run time of 2:25.25 last Wednesday while Keagan Busboom ran three lifetime bests in the 800 through this season, including a time of 2:18.17 last Wednesday.
"That's really encouraging," Franckey said.
Ashton Goss also ran his lifetime-best time of in the mile run by five seconds last Wednesday with a time of 5:20.25. 
"The freshman-sophomore distance crew is running really well as a whole," Franckey said. "The guys are running well early in the season. It'll be a fun year."
The Panthers will go into the Charleston Indoor Invitational on Saturday hoping to qualify some athletes for the Indoor Top Times Invite in Bloomington's Shirk Center, which will take place on Saturday, March 23
"We've got a number of guys who are right on the cusp of making it," Franckey said. "Hopefully, they can punch their ticket on Saturday. I'd really like to take a mid-sized bus down there."
According to Franckey's count, Bachtold's best pole-vault height and James' 3,200-meter run time likely have clinched their spots in the Top Times Invite.
The 800-meter and 1,600-meter times "needs to get a little quicker from Giese and Ryder if they want to qualify in multiple events," Franckey said. 
Jones may need to shave two-tenths of a second to qualify for the Top Times Invite in the 200-meter dash.
"That's kind of what we're lining him up for on Saturday," Franckey said. "We'll kind of see how the chips fall."
The Panthers' outdoor season starts with a meet at Watseka on Tuesday, March 26. After hosting three meets (on March 28, April 2 and April 9), competing in Monticello on Friday, April 12, hosting two more meets on April 15 and 17 and participating in a meet at Tolono Unity on Thursday, April 18, PBL will return to GCMS to compete on Tuesday, April 23, against Ridgeview and a GCMS squad that will include athletes that won the IESA Class A eighth-grade state meet last spring.
"I can't wait for it. I'm looking forward to going over there and seeing a number of great teams," Franckey said. "It should be a great meet team-wise top to bottom."


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