OREGON — After missing out on a trip downstate in the IHSA 1A cross country meet by one place last year, Hall High School’s Al Baldonado made sure there was a comfortable buffer between him and the make it or break it bubble.
The Red Devil junior placed fifth with a time of 16 minutes, 12 second on the 3-mile Park West course in Oregon. T.J. Pitcock of Byron, who like Baldonado ran 16:42 last year at the sectional, took first at 16:01.
“When the race started, I got packed in at about 30th place,” Baldonado said. “I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to break away and get separation.”
The concern didn’t last long, though, as Baldonado, Pitcock, two Annawan Wethersfield runners and Nick Monkemeyer of Rockford Christian eventually made up the lead pack.
“I stayed with (Michael) Cook of Wethersfield in other races this year and used him as my pacer. He’s always a little ahead of me, and I hung with him,” Baldonado said.
Pitcock, with a strong running stride, began to distance himself from the others and Baldonado was content to take a top-five finish.
In the team competition, Bureau Valley made a push for a state berth, but finished two spots out in seventh place.
Winnebago, ranked No. 1 in the state by dyestat.com, took first with 82 points, followed by qualifiers Rockford Christian, El Paso, Sterling Newman and Rock Falls.
Rock Falls had 174 points to 196 for the Storm.
In the girls race, it was another Byron Tiger on top as converted diver Kelsey Hildreth won with a time of 18:29.
“We’re ecstatic. Our teams rallied around T.J. and Kelsey,” Byron coach Mike McHale said.
Regan Weidner of Bureau Valley who took second in the state last year, had to settle for competing just for the sake of competing. Hampered by a stress fracture and losing most of the season to recovering, Weidner took 52nd place with a time of 21:13. Last year, she ran 18:37 to take second to Julie James of El Paso.
“I’m glad to see Regan back,” BV coach Dale Donner said.
“Realistically, I knew (qualifying) wasn’t possible,” Weidner said. “Next year, I’ll be healthier, and we’re going to have a good team.”
Weidner feels she may have trained too much in the offseason and plans to enter her senior year with a different mindset.
“I’ll take a smarter approach,” Weidner said.
Another BV runner who qualified last year, but missed this year was Ryan Taylor. Taylor took 25th with a time of 17:10 to lead the Storm boys.
“It’s a tough course, about a minute off from what you’re used to doing,” Donner said.
Freshman Megan Grady of Amboy/LaMoille became the first girl from Amboy to qualify for state, finishing sixth with a time of 19:33. She was pleased to have her name up on the Amboy school records along side her father, Jim, the 880-yard record holder in track for the Clippers. There will soon be another Grady on the wall of records in some fashion.
“It feels really good, because my dad had a record in track, so now my name is right next to his,” Grady said.
The next local finisher among the girls was Zoe Mead of Princeton, who took 17th with a time of 20:22. The final individual state-qualifying time was 20:08, ran by Rock Falls’ Makeley Velazequez who placed 13th.
“She had herself in pretty good position to make it,” Princeton coach Pat Hodge said. “She caught at least four to five girls toward the end. It was her best race of the year.”
“I think I kept my pace, but felt like I was dragging,” said Mead, who ran in the sectional all four years. “I don’t know if it was the cold or not sleeping enough.”
Annawan-Wethersfield topped Byron 83-148 for the girls team title with fourth-place Henry-Senachwine (154) also qualifying.
Notes: PHS sophomore Cody Workman finished 107th with a time of 18:53.35. While it was not his season best, Hodge noted it was a minute and a half faster and over 40 places better than last year at sectional.