Forreston-Polo boys track team claims state title in 400-meter relay

From left to right: Noah Dewey, McKeon Crase, De'Angelo Fernandez and Michael Taylor. (Courtesy photo)

‘This shows that anything can happen’

CHARLESTON — The odds were stacked against Forreston-Polo’s 400-meter relay team at the IHSA 1A track & field championships.

Coming into Saturday’s finals, they had finished second in their preliminary heat. For that matter, they had lost to Lena-Winslow the week before at the sectional and before that at the NUIC meet.

With 10 state medals since 2010, the highly-regarded program had sprint relays just as talented, but the best finish was a third place (400 relay) in 2021. Also, in the past, there were individuals faster than anyone in this year’s group.

However, in front of thousands of fans at O’Brien Stadium at Eastern Illinois University, the 400-relay of De’Angelo Fernandez (Polo), McKeon Crase (Forreston), Noah Dewey (Polo) and Michael Taylor (Forreston) stunned the rest of field with a school-record time of 42.91 to claim a state championship.

“Not one person would have had us winning,” F-P coach Tony Hardin said. “All those teams they beat - Catlin Salt Fork, Decatur St, Teresa, Madison, Le-Win – had history and heritage. And, then to do it coming out of the eighth lane.”

Typically, in a 400, the middle lanes (3-7) are strategically more favorable to run in. Additionally, F-P was nowhere to be found in last year’s 400-relay finals, while Decatur and Catlin brought back the majority of their state-placing teams.

“I feel it was deserved, but it’s still surprising,” Crase, who torched the backstretch on the second leg and pushed F-P to an early lead, said. “The key was the handoffs. They were perfect.”

Of any relay, the 400 is most dependent on handoffs and F-P performed at a higher level than the other eight finalists.

“Honestly, we just nail handoffs in practice,” Taylor, the anchor, said. “If it broke, we fix it.”

Taylor took the baton from Dewey with a lead of 6-8 meters and held off the Decatur anchor at the finish (42.91-42.98) Le-Win was third at 43.16.

“I was jumping up and down in joy when I saw Michael taking the baton with the lead,” Fernandez, the lead-off runner, said.

Delo, as he is better known, jump-started the road to victory by breaking the stagger a bit and putting F-P in contention with the more experienced groupings.

“To have a chance, we needed to get it to our anchor first,” Hardin said. “On Thursday (prelims), Michael got caught by Catlin and we came in at 43.31.

Catlin Salt Fork, which won the team championship, had the fastest prelim time coming in at 42.81, but fell to fifth with a 43.21 clocking. Since the sectional, F-P dropped a half a second on their time.

“This shows that anything can happen,” Dewey, the number three runner who handles the curve as good as anyone according to his coach, said.

An example of that is Bloomington Central Catholic coming into the meet with the best sectional time (42.71), but experiencing problems in the prelims and running two seconds slower and missing the finals.

“Coming into the meet, my initial hope was to finish top five,” Hardin said. “Then it was to hold our prelim spot of the third best time. The ultimate would be to win, but that was going to take a lot.”

With the win, F-P makes it two 400-relay titles in a row for the local area. Last year, Winnebago won in 42.92.

“It’s a mental game,” Taylor said. “Your body tells you that you have limits. But, your mind is limitless in what it can do.”

The same four runners came back to place fifth in the 800 relay with a 1:30 clocking. With Micah Nelson and Brock Soltow joining Crase and Dewey, it was a fourth place in the 1,600-relay at 3:26.

With 21 points, Forreston-Polo took 11th place overall. Winnebago, behind star sprinter Supreme Muhammad, was sixth with 24 points. Le-Win and Du-Pec, which had a champ in triple jumper Max Milbrath, tied for 21st with 16 points.

Byron had a state placer in junior Carson Busser, who was eighth in the high jump with an effort of 1.85 meters.