Tommy Landt's worst finish of the season may well have been his best performance.
It was evident on the second loop at the Class 2A Lakes Cross Country Sectional that the Crystal Lake Central senior, who won the Fox Valley Conference Meet by a wide margin three weeks earlier, was hurting.
Landt's right ankle, which was sprained and has a stress reaction, kept him from training for most of two weeks. He had it wrapped tightly, hoping it would hold up for the last 3.1 miles of his high school career.
It did, barely.
Landt's courageous effort and 24th-place finish meant everything to the Tigers. They won the sectional title, their first since 1996, with 92 points, eight better than Kaneland.
Landt was far from his normal self, yet still good enough to keep it together and help Central win.
When Lakes athletic director Kurt Rowells said a few words about what it meant to win on the final day of the season, then handed the Tigers the plaque, they quickly made sure it was Landt holding it for a few pictures.
In a season disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out the state meet that normally would be next weekend, it was a scintillating finish for the Tigers.
“It hurt a lot,” said Landt, who rested his aching foot for last week’s Belvidere Regional. “Mentally and physically. I went in confident and tried to battle through the pain. It means everything to finish strong. We’ve worked our butts off this whole season. It means everything.”
Central needed everyone at their best to hold off Kaneland, last season’s Class 2A state champ.
Sophomore Karson Hollander continued on his tear, taking fourth place. Senior Austin May, who ran fourth most of the season after running first last year, came up big by winning his flight with the third through fifth runners, good for 12th overall. Junior Danny Hamill ran another solid race to take 14th.
May overcame some anxious pre-race moments to run perhaps the best race of his life.
“Austin stepped out of his (starting box) right before the start and started throwing up,” Tigers coach Bill Eschman said. “We were watching him walk out of the gate and just go down. We were like, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ He tried to get up and went down again.”
May was Central’s top runner last season.
“It’s amazing,” May said. “Last year things were going well. There was a little bit of a turn for me, it hasn’t been my year compared to where I was last year. These guys got me through it, got me out of my funk.”
Eschman marveled all season about how well the Tigers ran together, how hard they trained over the summer and how much they had improved. He will tell future teams about how Landt’s first high school race he ran 28:00, then about how he made huge gains every year and eventually became a conference champion.
Now, he can tell another story about guts.
Landt looked miserable during the race, but he kept pushing.
“He wasn’t himself. We talked about it this week and his attitude was great,” Eschman said. “We talked about you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you get out there. You have to be ready. He struggled. Obviously, the pain was a lot, but also the emotion. This is it for him. That played a role too.
“He did come around a little bit at the end because it could have gone really bad. It could have went really south for him.”
Hamill and May assisted Landt when the Tigers walked over to get their plaque, one on each side helping him walk.
Landt had won every race he ran before Saturday, with the exception of a double dual meet where Central's top four runners ran across the finish line together. With Landt healthy, the sectional might have been a runaway for the Tigers. Instead, it became an emotional, heroic and legendary effort.
“The only reason I could do it is for the team,” Landt said. “They just keep me going.”
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.