ROCK FALLS – When Alex Keilback took a slim lead on Brandt Cole, he likely didn't realize what sort of animal was in the cage he was rattling.
Up on the hill beyond the pond at Centennial Park, the Winnebago runner edged in front of the Rock Falls senior. The advantage lasted a few seconds.
By the time they circled the pond and turned toward the homestretch, Cole had built a 6-second lead and cruised to a blistering time of 15 minutes, 38 seconds and a Big Northern individual title on the 3-mile course.
He pumped his fist a few meters past the chute, then delivered an interview without waiting to catch his breath.
“The kick is my favorite of the race, man,” Cole said. “No matter how tired you are, it’s all on how much heart and guts you have."
"I don't think there's any better feeling as a coach than seeing what Brandt did today," Rock Falls assistant coach Mindy Porter said. "His level of maturity has come so far over the past year. He goes in with a plan and has an idea in his head about where he wants to surge. He knows the course and knows his strengths on the course."
At the 2-mile mark, Cole, Keilback and Harvard's Jorge Pichardo were in a pack of their own, jockeying for position as they circled the Heide Shelter near the parking lot and approached the loop around the pond.
Porter was impressed, albeit not surprised, with the ferocity Cole showed in the final 100 meters.
"It's about mental toughness and being able to withstand that pain at the end," she said.
"Running is more mental than physical any day," Cole said. "For me, it's all mental."
Cross country success comes down to coming on strong at the right time, and Cole is doing just that. He pays the credit to Porter and head coach Mark Truesdell, who run all the training routes with their athletes.
“That really pushes you, because you gain respect for them and it makes you work harder,” Cole said. “I don’t know many coaches who will go out there and run 10 or 11 miles on Monday. I can’t give my coaches enough credit.”
Truesdell put the race among Cole's best this season, but predicts the best is yet to come.
"He is really coming into his own," Truesdell said. "He didn't panic coming down that last 800, and I think we're going to see some even better races from him in regionals and beyond."
Next Saturday, Cole and Co. will be at it again on their home course for a Class 1A regional. On Saturday, the Rockets were seventh out of 13 teams with 142 points, just two more than Rockford Christian. Oregon, led by Garrett Newman (41st, 17:19), took 11th with 289. Richmond-Burton (57) outran Winnebago (78) for its second straight title and fourth in five years.
While some runners' nerves were rattled by Saturday morning's steady rain, it brought out the best in Cole. In fact, he wouldn't mind a little deja vu next Saturday.
“I love the rain,” he said, turning with arms spread wide and looking to the sky with a huge smile. “This is gonna separate the good from the bad, the tough from the weak and everything else. I’d run in this every Saturday.”