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PAXTON — Andy Thompson hasn’t forgotten what used to be the tougher times for the Paxton-Buckley-Loda boys’ track and field program.
“The first two years (of my career), we didn’t even win a team meet,” the senior recalled.
With that as background, Thompson’s reaction Friday night after he and the Panthers accomplished a year-long goal — winning the Class 1A Paxton Sectional title, believed to be the program’s first ever — was understandable.
“And now we win a sectional? It’s unreal,” Thompson said. “I can’t believe it.”
There was plenty bordering on the can’t-believe-it variety Friday, starting with PBL and Tri-Valley actually sharing the team crown upon recording 84 points apiece. As you might guess, it came down to the final event to decide — or should we say muddle? — the outcome.
His team trailing the Vikings by two points entering the 1,600-meter relay, Panthers anchor Hayden Young rallied in the final straightaway for a third-place finish in the event over the fourth-place Tri-Valley foursome, giving PBL the extra two points needed to tie the meet. Vikings anchor Austin Martinez, fresh off winning the 200 minutes earlier, kicked very early in an effort to take the team title before fading on the homestretch.
It set off a half-awkward, half-comical scene in which the two squads took turns taking a victory lap and pictures with the lone championship plaque on hand while exchanging chants of, “We’re No. 1.” The Panthers, being the gracious hosts they are, allowed the Vikings to take the plaque on site home to Downs. But the title was all the same to PBL, which will receive its plaque via mail from the IHSA at a later date.
“It’s still a title,” said coach John Overstreet, a long-time Paxton resident who won an individual state title as a PBL student but never a team sectional title. “It won’t make a difference down the road.”
“It means everything,” added Thompson.
For such an wild finish — it should be noted that Heyworth, not Tri-Valley, was favored to be neck-and-neck with PBL — the meet began unassumingly enough. As expected, the Panthers dominated early, advancing five of the 12 individuals out of the field events who went to state.
Highlighting those performances was a first-place showing by Cory Long in the discus. The senior sealed his second straight trip to state with a toss of 156 feet, 1 inch, a mark that places him fifth among Class 1A qualifiers heading into state, less than five feet off the top-seed’s sectional throw.
“He threw 149 (feet), and then I told him to just go out there and throw your butt off and don’t leave anything else out there. And he just launched it,” discus-mate Reno Jamison said of Long’s toss.
“He’s really, really strong. Before the meet, we went in and lifted and did some warm-ups. He had like 275 (pounds) on bench, and he just did it two or three times with no problem. I had my max on the clean bar, trying to do it once. And he picks it up and does it three times,” Jamison added with a laugh.
Jamison more than did his part, too. He will advance to state in two events after taking second in the discus (136-7) and tying for the best mark in the shot put, an event that was among the night’s most nail-biting. Jamison and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley’s JJ Gardner each earned trips to state by throwing 47-9 1/2, a half-inch further than Heyworth’s Korey Neslund. All three of those top marks came during the first flight; after heading over to discus and tossing it about 15 times in warm-ups and two flights, no one bettered their original shot put throws in the finals flight, though it was “stressful, Jamison said.
“I went up there and just threw my heart out and ended up beating him by half an inch,” Jamison said of earning the trip to state over Neslund.
“It was kind of nerve-racking,” added Gardner, a first-time state qualifier as a senior. “I really have no feeling now. I think (going to state) will hit me later ... It’s really exciting.”
In the field events, PBL also received runner-up finishes from Nick Glover in the pole vault (10 feet) and Tyler Rubarts in the long jump (19-11 1/2), both advancing to state.
The running events are where the meet got interesting. In an effort to qualify PBL in the 3,200 relay, Young, one of the team’s top runners joined the relay crew. That seems innocent enough, but it was a risk because he also competes directly after that in the 3,200, an event he advanced to state in last season.
And it was one that backfired. PBL took third in the 3,200 relay in 8:26.26, missing qualifying for state by one place and a couple seconds on time. Drained from that run, Young then turned in a subpar two-mile race, taking sixth in 11:49.27 and failing to qualify for state. A quality two-mile race from an energetic Young likely would’ve resulted in a top-two or top-three finish, giving PBL anywhere from 7 to 10 team points instead of one.
“I’d like to give him props for running that 4 by 800, because he gave up basically an automatic chance in the 3,200 (to go to state),” Thompson said of Young. “He gave up his shot to try and pull his teammates (to state). That says a lot about his character, and that’s the kind of teammate he’s been.
In need of someone to step up, PBL got just the performance it needed from Vaughn Gentzler. The sophomore advanced to state by taking second in the 110 hurdles in 16.46, slipping by third-place finisher Tyler Maxwell of Ridgeview by two one-hundreths of a second.
“He ran his best race of the year. Nobody saw that coming. He probably didn’t see that either,” Overstreet said.
Later, Thompson came up with a critical victory in the 800. Locked in a three-way battle for first with GCMS’ David Ricks and Bloomington Cornerstone Christian’s Isaac Bauer with 200 meters left, Thompson pulled into first place with about 100 meters left, only to be passed again by Bauer. As they ran neck and neck down the stretch, Thompson said he took an elbow brush from his opponent. But instead of impeding the PBL standout, it buoyed him and knocked Bauer off balance, Thompson said.
“I was like, ‘No, I can’t lose this.’ I said, ‘I can’t lose this with 20 meters to go,’” Thompson said.
Thompson crossed the line in 2:02.28. Ricks made a late charge to earn a state berth, finishing in 2:02.32, just ahead of Bauer’s 2:02.42.
“I beat second by maybe that far, I beat the (other) kid by maybe that,” said Thompson, holding his fingers about six inches apart.
PBL’s six state qualifiers, as well as Gardner and Ricks from GCMS, will all compete in Thursday’s state preliminaries on the campus of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, where Thompson will take in a simple mindset as his career nears its end.
“Run fast and have fun,” he said.