ALTON — The Alton Redbirds and Marquette Catholic Explorers both had reason to celebrate Wednesday at Gordon Moore Park.
The Redbirds nabbed the team title in the boys' race of the Alton Invitational, while Marquette freshman Riley Vickrey was the champion of the girls' race.
“It's a really good confidence booster for them,” Alton head coach Vernon Curvey said of the boys' championship. “All the hard work finally shows and it pays off for us. They needed that.
“I think there's still some room for improvement. I think we've got a chance to step up a little bit further. I hope to at least get third in conference and push on to be in the top three or four at regionals and then cross your fingers for sectionals.”
As for Vickrey, it was the first varsity win of her young prep career. It was a big boost for her confidence moving forward.
“It feels amazing,” Vickrey said. “I came out here hoping to place in the top 15, but definitely not first. I'm happy to win in Alton, just to show the Marquette team can really push.
“This gives me lots of confidence. It shows me that I can really push and achieve my goals.”
Vickrey turned in a team of 22 minutes, 6 seconds, which was 40 seconds faster than runner-up LeaAnn Johnson of Staunton (22:46).
Explorers' head coach Mike Brooks raved about Vickrey's performance and the potential she has for success in front of her.
“Going in I knew she was going to finish towards the top,” Brooks said. “I was thinking at least top 10, but we haven't run against some of the bigger schools, so I really didn't know exactly what to expect in terms of place. We had a talk before the race and we wanted to feel comfortable in that first mile, mile and a half and then pick it up. At this course that's somewhere around the tennis courts and she was in second or third place when she got to the tennis courts. When she came around she was in the lead. She just kept working on that lead throughout the race.
“She's a smarter runner than most freshmen. She knows how to pace, she knows her body. She's a kid that makes the coach look good.”
The boys' race was won by Jersey's Ben Flowers. He turned in a time of 16:16. Granite City's talented brother duo of Andrew and Will O'Keefe finished second and fourth.
Andrew was second (16:32), while McCluer North's Clinton Heffner finished third (16:33) and Will was fourth (17:07). Andrew had to make a big kick at the end to hold off Heffner at the finish line.
A senior, Will is coming back from an ankle injury and trying to find his consistency again.
“I didn't know what to expect from this because I was injured for two weeks,” Will said. “This was my first week back and I was just weak, like mentally weak in this race.
“I rolled my ankle really hard and I strained my left foot, a tendon and a ligament. They're still a little puffy but I'm able to train on them without any pain.”
Andrew admitted the goal was to pace Flowers and see what happened.
“My plan today was for Will and I to run together and try and go behind Ben Flowers,” Andrew said. “(Heffner) who got third, I didn't know him.
“I feel confident right now about training.”
Alton's Evan Rathgeb followed Will, coming in fifth with a time of 17:25. He led a tight contingency of AHS runners. Kelvin Cummings was sixth (17:49), Arie Macias took ninth (18:08), Cassius Havis nabbed 13th (18:39) and Sam Gentelin was 15th (18:54) to round out the scoring for the Redbirds' championship.
“Our top five got medals, so that's huge,” Rathgeb said. “Our main goal was we really wanted to win as a team. We talked about it all week and it was really good to see it come together.”
The Warriors were able to follow the Birds in the team standings for the boys' race, taking second with 57 points. Alton had 48 points in its win.
Rounding out the GCHS scoring behind the O'Keefe brothers were: Leo Nickonowicz in 14th (18:48), Kariem Ali in 17th (19:04) and Aiden Sampson in 20th (19:27).
The rest of the boys' team standings were: Jersey (63), Collinsville (118), Civic Memorial (134), McCluer North (143), Centralia (168), Cahokia (186) and Staunton (277).
CM was led by Cohl Callies, who finished in eighth place with a time of 18:01. He was joined in the team scoring by: Parker Borth (19:39), Mark Eldridge (19:56), Nick Duley (20:38) and Drake Stephenson (20:52).
“We were missing one of our top two guys (Sam Hurst) and that kind of hurt us in the team score,” Eagles' first-year coach Jake Peal said. “I was really happy with the way Cohl Callies ran. He managed the first mile and made a hard move miles two and three and caught a lot of guys. That's kind of his style and it works great on a tough course like this.”
Marquette was also represented in the boys' race by Adam Sanders individually. Sanders finished in 21:12.
The girls' race only saw five teams enter full lineups. Jersey won with 35 points, followed by McCluer North (42), Collinsville (65), Alton (84) and Cahokia (145).
Vickrey was the lone runner for the Explorers, while Granite City entered three and CM had two competitors.
Alyssa Comer paced the Warriors, finishing fourth in 22:52, while Chessy Nikonowicz was ninth in 24:30. Amanda Rivera was the third GCHS runner, finishing 36th in 30:47.
The Eagles were represented by Zoey Lewis' eighth place finish in 24:24 and Lydia Peal's 21st place finish in 27:04.
AHS was led by Morgan Rauscher, who took 16th place in 25:22. Other scorers for the Redbirds were: Tayton Kuebli (27:46), Kellie Mans (28:11), Emma Voumard (28:18) and Abbie Day (29:04).
This could be the final season for the Alton Invite at Gordon Moore Park. A new cross country course is being completed on AHS' Godfrey campus and Curvey hopes to see the race ran there next season.
“I'm hoping this is the last year running here,” Curvey said. “It adds to the anxiety not being in control of things and never knowing after setting up the course the night before is it still going to be up. Did they decide to mow it? Is the building going to be open? We won't have that problem at our place. The AD will have all that taken care of.”