By Kyle Daubs
Matt Piescinski has seen it all, but this race had to take the cake.
The announcer has made a living calling IHSA track, among other events, since 1991. Since becoming an avid track fan and member of the Charleston community many years ago, Piescinski can recall many state champions and Riley McInerney’s state championship in the 3200-meter run in 2013 is right up there with some of the best of the best.
“Definitely,” said Piescinski. “I would say him and Nick Oakley’s race in the 800-meter run should be some of the favorite individual races in Charleston’s history.”
Oakley, now running at Eastern Illinois University, was just 0.63 seconds away from becoming the state champion in the 800-meter, but it’s McInerney that is a bona fide champ in Charleston, which also includes holding the Class 2A state record time of 9 minutes, 08.44 seconds.
The IHSA track class system ran in two classes from 1975-2008, but a change was made in 2009 to stretch the divisions to three. In 2011, Michael Clevenger of Decatur MacArthur set a new record for Class 2A in the 3200-meter run with a time of 9:14.49 as a junior.
In 2012, the future Notre Dame product did not break his record, running a 9:18.01, but according to former EIU coach and Riley’s dad, John McInerney, if the weather had been different, the script might have been different.
“His senior year, it was just scorching hot,” said John. “He ran just fast enough to save energy for the mile. I think if the conditions were better, his time would have been quicker. We knew that the record was a little soft and attainable.”
The 3200-meter race is a one-time shot when ran. The race is held on Saturday with all other finalists that qualify from the preliminaries on Thursday. On that Saturday in 2013, Coles County was under a storm watch and the officials rushed the meet. The directors “threw the schedule out of the window,” as the coach puts it.
However, when the storm cleared up, the conditions were perfect.
“I remember when the sun came out, it was warm,” said Piescinski. “He went out in a pack and was always in the top three. I remember him never falling behind.”
To start the race, McInerney went out with Chatham Glenwood’s Marc Maton and Mount Zion’s Jake Brown. All three remained together for the first six laps of the eight-lap race.
Brown was a great setup for Riley in the state meet. His Apollo Conference foe was seen throughout the majority of the season, including the sectional. At the beginning of the year, Brown had beaten McInerney a couple of times.
“That race was the weirdest thing,” said Riley. “Before the sectional, Jake was the favorite to win state. We had raced twice earlier in the season and he crushed me.”
McInerney recalls a time where Maton, Brown, and himself were all at the Springfield Invite, which was roughly four to five weeks before the sectional meet.
“We were at an invite at Springfield, and all three of us were there,” said Riley. “Jake goes out with a 62-second 400-meter to start, and we’re all thinking he’d die off. But he didn’t. At conference, I was letting him win because I had four events and I wanted team points. He just would go out super hard. I just had to take it to him rather than let him dominant the race.”
If anything, it was perfect practice. At the Sectional, McInerney ran an even faster time with a 9:06.41, eight seconds faster than the runner-up, Brown. The Champaign Centennial Sectional was one of the faster sectionals in the 3200-meter run as five individuals in total moved onto state.
Even though McInerney beat his Apollo Conference rival, he knew that he wasn’t the favorite going into that meet.
“I knew that Jake was a favorite going into action,” said Riley. “We just battled, and Marc sat like a leech and let us duel. Jake didn’t have the wheels in the end, so we just battled it out.”
As the race progressed, McInerney knew that he could handle being in a pack in the front. He had comfortably taken that approach many times, dating to his time in junior high track.
Former Charleston Middle School track coach and teacher, Gene Nance, retired from coaching in 2014 and began announcing the IHSA track meet alongside Piescinski in 2015. He can remember when McInerney began to feel comfortable in the lead pack – even when he didn’t want to do it at first.
“I would say he was a little reluctant as a seventh grader,” Nance said. “I think he was afraid of his potential. I still remember his very first race in the mile. My wife used to help out at meets and she was at the finish line. I wasn’t there, but she heard Riley say something after he crossed the finish line. He won the race and said, ‘Oh shoot, they’re going to expect me to do that all the time now.’ I laughed so hard when I heard that.”
The ironic part about all of this is that his father was the complete opposite.
“When I was in high school, I never liked leading,” said John. “It drove me crazy when Riley did it, but it’s funny how things coordinate when you’re coaching your own kid.”
However, the one person who was running the race wouldn’t have had it any other way. McInerney acknowledged that it wasn’t a problem that Charleston could have fixed. He just was used to being up front.
“Nothing bad against Newton, Neoga, or Olney, but we were racing tiny schools each week,” Riley said. “I just sort of got used to being by myself in the front. The lead was where I was most comfortable. Having them there with me felt comfortable.”
At the state race, McInerney clocked in at 4:45 for the first mile, crediting his fellow competitiors for the faster time.
“It was like Indian running,” said Riley. “I would take the lead and then he (Maton) would try to take the lead and slow it down. I knew I had better foot speed. Anytime either Marc or Jake would try and go around, I would react and go back around with them. I knew I had the confidence in my kick and I could win anytime.”
The trio stayed tightly packed for two more laps. With two laps – a half a mile – left in the race, there McInerney was with two of the best distance runners in the state. To put it into perspective, three future NCAA Division I athletes were vying for the state title. McInerney (EIU), Maton (Southeastern Missouri) and Brown (Loyola) remains close together until those final two laps when Brown started to fall back.
Once he got to that point, he knew he had a shot to win the title.
“I knew in my head that if I was in the lead with 600 meters to go, I would win,” said Riley. “After the first mile, I told myself I had 1,000 meters to go of pain and struggle. I told myself, I’m going to win if I can do that and just get through it.”
As McInerney entered the final lap, he began to accelerate. When the bell rang, he felt energized to take a four-step lead over Maton instead of the previous two steps. Maton hung with him, but could not pass him.
Once that bell rang for the final lap, most people in the stands expected to see a great race over the 400 meters remaining.
To McInerney, he saw a state title.
“The back stretch with the last 250, I could feel Marc there, which I ultimately think helped me,” Riley said. “I was telling myself: I’m the fastest guy on the field. I was pretty good at kicking in high school. The most confidence I had was that nobody could outkick me. Once we got to the curve, I just tried to give everything. He stayed behind me and I kept pressing on the gas. The last 100, it was just all out.”
It was a celebration. McInerney became the first individual state champion from Charleston since C. Morris won the 220-low hurdles in 1906. He also became a state record holder in Class 2A and beat some of the best distance runners Central Illinois had seen in years.
When looking back, his coach/father knows that it was a great race with some great individual talent, acknowledging Maton’s role in pushing Riley.
“Riley and Jake duked it out at the sectional and Riley closed it out with a 59 on the last lap,” John said. “Jake didn’t have a kick, so his way was to lead fast and pound it out of you. I didn’t want Riley to lead, but he didn’t want Jake to dictate what happened, so Riley took control from the front. Maton had a great kick too. People forget: Maton broke the state record too.”
McInerney saved the best split he ever ran in high school for his final high school race. A 59-second, 400-meter dash is pretty fast after having run 2800 meters. Riley, though, clocked this final lap in 57 seconds.
“Looking back at the last lap, once I heard the bell, it was like someone snapped their fingers, and I just ran,” said Riley. “My last lap was 57 seconds and all I can think is just ‘w ow.’ Even with college standards, I still just think ‘wow.”
For the announcer in the booth, it was just as much of a special moment. Piescinski acknowledged that McInerney’s time still is fasther than some of the greats.
“Think about it: Clevenger went onto run at Notre Dame and was one of the best in the country in college,” said Piescinski. “His time is faster than Jon Davis and Logan Hall, who both went to Illinois. His time was faster than Grant Nykaza, who went to Florida State.”
“To think, Riley beat a guy like Michael Clevenger, who set the record on his way to winning the triple crown,” continued Piescinski. “He beat his record by six seconds. That’s incredible. When you really think about it, what he did was special. He beat, and has continued to beat, some of the best distance superstars in the state of Illinois – and that is what makes it hallmark.”
It was enough to make his former coach and teacher break down in tears.
“I had known him all those years as a coach, but I was lucky to see how he progressed through high school,” said Nance. “He was such a great kid, and now an even better guy. I had him in two classes. When you’re a teacher and a coach, there’s this bond you develop. When he won the race, I couldn’t help myself. I just broke out into tears because I was so happy for him because I know how much work he put into it.”
For his dad, it was a “blessing.” “I’m really thankful for Derrick (Landrus) and Blain (Mayhall) letting me help out for four years,” said John. “I was just volunteering, so it was a huge blessing to be able to have two coaches give me free range to work with distance kids. It was a really fun time. Riley’s a big team kid, so it was really special to so many young great kids who got caught along for the ride.”
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