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2023 boys' track and field state notebook: Okeke rallies for three prelims victories

May 26—CHARLESTON — Daryl Okeke claims he felt disappointed and even angry after finding out he was disqualified from his heat in the IHSA Class 1A 110-meter hurdles state preliminaries on Thursday.

Both would be reasonable emotions for the Judah Christian senior to express.

Last season's third-place state finisher in the event, Okeke won't get to compete for an even better outcome one year later after a hurdle he clipped during his preliminary race flew into another lane and tripped a competitor.

"Kind of just have to take things as they go. There's nothing I can do about it," Okeke said. "I feel like I've already proved myself in that race this year. Just got to come back on Saturday, run my three races, take them home and direct my anger on those three events and go crazy in those."

As Okeke hinted at, the 110 hurdles wasn't his only shot at capturing a state title this week within O'Brien Stadium on the Eastern Illinois University campus.

He still has three legitimate cracks at that, thanks to recording Thursday's top overall prelims time in the 100-meter dash (10.92 seconds), 200-meter dash (21.70) and 300-meter hurdles (38.38).

"The 110 is arguably my most strenuous race," Okeke said. "It kind of deteriorates my other races. But (being disqualified) gave me fire to kind of go stronger in those (other) races."

Okeke was most pleased with his performance in the 300 hurdles, which serves as a personal record. He finished third in the 300 hurdles last year.

"The 300 felt really good," said Okeke, who still sported two nasty gashes on his left knee from the 110 hurdles after finishing all four of his races. "I had a long pause between the 100 and the 300. PR'd by over a second. I'm pretty excited for that on Saturday."

After capping his 200, a winded Okeke was focused upon trying to obtain small cups of water stationed next to Charleston's big blue track. He simultaneously was approached by a few other sprinters who wanted to dap him up.

One uttered the phrase "you're him" to Okeke. It's a term that's recently gained steam in the sporting world, used to describe someone exceptional at their craft.

"It feels good to get some recognition," Okeke said, "but at the same time, I don't really run for that. I run for really just the time, not the placement."

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Tuscola juniors Josiah Hortin and Jackson Barrett may have seemed like the most calm individuals competing in the 1A state preliminaries on Thursday.

Hortin softly clapped his hands while crossing the O'Brien Stadium track finish line in the 800-meter run.

Both he and Barrett steadily cruised over that same line during their respective runs in the 1,600, each more concerned with checking a nearby video board containing a running clock than trying to beat out nearby foes.

"We were chill," Barrett said. "It was a good day."

"Just to make it to the next round is what it's all about," Hortin added. "Do it as comfortably as you can do it. That's the goal."

Hortin advanced to Saturday's finals in both the 800 (1 minute, 57.65 seconds) and 1,600 (4:26.02) based on recording a top-12 prelims time. Barrett did the same in the 1,600 (4:26.35), and he'll also run on championship day in the 3,200, which does not feature any prelims.

"We're both at a level where we think we can hit the standards without stressing too much," Hortin said of he and Barrett. Both earned all-state cross-country status in 1A last fall and played pivotal roles on the Warriors' 1A state third-place boys' basketball team in the winter.

"It's all about being calm and knowing how good you are," Hortin added.

Barrett will be joined in Saturday's 3,200 by junior Tuscola teammate Will Foltz.

"Will's in a great spot," Barrett said. "I think he can get top five in the 3,200."

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Another participant of Thursday's 800 preliminaries was St. Thomas More senior Ryan Hendrickson. He qualified for Saturday's final along with Hortin by putting up a time of 1 minute, 58.67 seconds.

"I've got a little more track experience under my belt," said Hendrickson, who ran only in a sectional and at state last season and still placed fourth in the 800. "But it's kind of the same situation: going out and competing."

Something which also remains the same for Hendrickson is that he'll play in an IHSA baseball sectional championship game before running in the 800 state final.

He did so last season, helping STM baseball to a super-sectional berth in Champaign before jetting down to Charleston. That's his exact schedule again this weekend — baseball starting at 10 a.m. against Milford on STM's campus, with the 800 beginning at 1:55 p.m. at O'Brien Stadium.

"My baseball team, they're great supporters of me," Hendrickson said. "So the least I can do is give my all for them, too."

Since racing at O'Brien Stadium last year, Hendrickson has been affected by two important life events.

One was committing to and eventually signing with the Creighton men's track and field program. The other was undergoing appendix-removal surgery in early April, a fact revealed to Thursday's prelims audience by the public-address announcer.

"Pretty much didn't run the whole month of April," Hendrickson said. "I have a grateful attitude. It's not a season-ending injury, and I'm still going to play in the postseason for baseball and track. So I think I'm lucky."

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Nathan Kirby is ready to take the 1A state meet by storm.

Pun possibly intended, given Kirby runs and hurdles for Salt Fork.

"I feel really good," the Storm senior said. "Coming in ranked first in the 4-by-1, second in the (110-meter) hurdles, only running it twice during outdoor season, I'm feeling pretty good about everything."

Kirby dealt with a lingering hamstring injury to his right leg through most of this season. A key member of Salt Fork's 1A team state-champion roster last season and its 1A team state runner-up crew in 2021, Kirby slowly but surely worked his way back into action.

"For a while, it was kind of both (physical and mental strain)," Kirby said. "I was kind of worried about, I didn't want to risk messing it up. ... And also every other week, it was coming back and hurting. But I didn't feel any pain (Thursday)."

Kirby won his 110 hurdles flight in 14.78 seconds on Thursday to advance to Saturday's final with the second-quickest time overall.

He also anchored a heat-winning 400 relay tandem to a 42.81 time that rated best in the prelims. Seniors Ben Jessup and Ethan McLain and junior Brysen Vasquez also were part of that foursome.

"I feel like some good stuff's going to happen on Saturday," Kirby said.

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Jerrius Atkinson won three IESA 1A eighth-grade boys' state championships to end his junior high track and field career last spring. He represented Schlarman in the 110 hurdles, 100 and 400 in that fashion. On Thursday, Atkinson brought his winning pedigree to the IHSA state ranks. The Hilltoppers freshman won his heat in the 300 hurdles with a time of 40.11 seconds to automatically qualify for Saturday's final. He also advanced on time to the 110 hurdles championship with a prelims clocking of 15.40.

"It feels good. I put in a lot of work to do this," Atkinson said. "I was nervous at first. I ran the 110s, and it felt good. I felt I could do way better."

Atkinson is on the fringe of giving Schlarman its first IHSA boys' track and field state medals since Jesse Hahne earned a pair of distance-running medals in 2013.

"We've had a lot of ups and downs at Schlarman," Atkinson said, "but it feels good to represent."

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Cole Pemble found himself in go-big-or-go-home territory.

Through two rounds of Thursday's 1A long jump state preliminaries, the Blue Ridge junior was sitting outside of the championship-qualifying 12 athletes.

Pemble may or may not have known this. But he rendered it irrelevant with his third and final leap, hitting the sand at 21 feet, 23/4 inches, to not only move on but also rank second among the 12 athletes who qualified for Saturday's finals.

"I've been having a pretty rough year because I blew out my hamstring midseason," said Pemble, who suffered his right leg injury during a mid-April sprinting race. "Long jump was not doing very good, but I came back and I'm just looking to place again this year.

"I got fourth last year, and I'm looking to get better than that this year."

Pemble attempted to balance both surprise about his sudden rise up the state prelims leaderboard with realization that he has leaped farther in the past.

"It kind of came out of nowhere, to be honest," Pemble said. "I can go longer. That's not even close to my PR of (21-11). I can do a lot better than that, and you'll see that Saturday."

COLIN LIKAS