For the first two years of their high school careers, the thought of going to the IHSA State Track Finals was nearly unthinkable for Litchfield seniors Alex Fischer, Damon Burdell and Sam Painter.
"My freshman and sophomore years, I would have never thought I would have been here, especially not in this race," Fischer said. "I was a sprinter... and not a very good one."
Burdell echoed his teammate's statement, saying, "I was pretty sure that I would never go to state."
The chances for Painter were even more remote as he wasn't even participating in the sport at the time, instead playing for the Litchfield High School baseball team.
But on Thursday, May 23, all three of these improbable state qualifiers, along with junior Austin Niehaus and freshman Cameron Crow, found themselves competing against the best of Class 1A in Charleston.
The results, and the expectations, would be mixed for the Panthers. The 4x800 relay was ranked 28th out of 37 teams on Thursday, while Painter had the 12th best sectional mark in the long jump and the sixth best in the triple jump.
The 4x800 team would reach their expectations, running an 8:36.97 to shave more than half a second off their sectional time of 8:37.50.
"It was our goal to get here," Coach Dan Newkirk said of the foursome. "They ran faster than their sectional time, so that was good."
Fischer also said that the group was happy with the end result.
"It was hard, but I think we tried our best," the Litchfield senior said. "I think we did pretty well considering we were ranked 28th. We didn't really have a goal other than beat our time."
The success at state shows how far that the team has come from earlier this season, when expectations were low and the group were still figuring things out.
"At the beginning of the year, we for sure didn't think we were coming," Fischer said, mentioning a solid Carlinville squad who finished third at the sectional. "I guess we just pulled it out at the sectional."
The cohesion during the race and camaraderie after it also show the growth of the team.
"We've spent a lot of time together," Burdell said, adding with a smile. "Maybe too much."
"A lot of people think that track is an individual sport, but it's really not," Niehaus said, huddled with his teammates after the race. "Look at this right here. It's definitely a team sport."
For Burdell and Fischer, it's bittersweet to know that their two laps around the blue track at O'Brien Stadium were their last as Panthers. For Crow and Niehaus, Thursday was an opportunity to get better and learn from the experience they hope to replicate in 2020.
"Alex and I came here last year as alternates, but we didn't get a taste of what it was like to run," Niehaus said. "It feels good to be part of it."
"It was kind of nerve wracking coming around the corner," said Crow. "I'm used to being able to hear them, but everyone was drowning them out. It was weird."
"Austin and Cameron have a very bright future in this sport. Whatever those guys ran, getting them into this meet and onto the track made it all worthwhile," said Coach Newkirk. "Eithan Rigsbey (alternate) has just been improving by leaps and bounds. He's going to run cross country next year, so he's coming into it with a strong base. I'm very excited about what he can do."
Painter At State
The bittersweet feeling for Burdell and Fischer extend to Painter as well, who had some challenges in Charleston.
"Sam had a little bit of a rough day," Coach Newkirk said of Painter, who tweaked his ankle on a run through for the long jump."He had three very good jumps that he scratched that would have probably all been over 21 feet. He just had a bad day."
The bad day that started with three fouls in the long jump followed Painter to the triple jump, where he leapt 40'1.5" on his second jump, but scratched on his other two attempts. His mark would be approximately two feet and three inches short of the final qualifying spot for Saturday's finals.
"Sam has blessed us with a lot of really good days, so I'm not complaining. He's been a great kid and a great asset to the team," Coach Newkirk said. "This one's going to stay with him a whole lot longer than it's going to stay with me and I know it hurts him."
Coach Newkirk said that Painter's late start in track always made it feel like they were playing catch-up, although the senior's natural athleticism made up for some of the growing pains in terms of technique.
"It's a lot of technique. Your athleticism can only carry you so far," Painter said after his final jump.
"We had some very definite deadlines and it always felt like we were right up to them," Newkirk said. "It just caught up with us today."
Newkirk did credit 2018 grad Trevor Geggie for helping to get Painter to the level that he attained late in the season, when he won both the long jump and triple jump at sectionals.
"Trevor has come back around the last few weeks and really toned up some technique things," Newkirk said. " We're really lucky to have Trevor around. He's going to be a great coach someday."
Geggie also knows about the disappointment that can come at state. He was part of last year's 4x400 team (along with Painter, Keating Monroe and Deundre Holloway) that ran a 3:28.87, missing the finals by 1.4 seconds.
But like Geggie, who now runs for Greenville University, bigger things are on the horizon for Painter, who will play basketball for Illinois Wesleyan, and Fischer and Burdell, who were the co-valedictorians for Friday's graduation ceremony.
As far as the future of Litchfield track, with athletes like Niehaus, Crow and Rigsbey returning, Coach Newkirk isn't worried.
"Somebody will show up," he said. "They always do.