CHARLESTON – For a few brief moments, the Erie-Prophetstown Panthers girls track team thought it had won the program's first-ever state title.
But even when the final scores were read and they found themselves as runners-up, there was nothing but joy amongst the Panther faithful.
Senior Paige Rus won the state title in the triple jump, and the 400 relay quartet of Courtney Cobert, Peyton Rus, Heather Strike and Rachel Cobert also won gold. Erie-Prophetstown scored 56 points to claim second place at the Class 1A girls state track meet Saturday at O'Brien Stadium on the campus of Eastern Illinois University.
"This is the biggest accomplishment of my sports career," Paige Rus said, eyeing the team runner-up trophy. "I'm very proud to be part of this team, and I'm also very thankful to be a part of it."
"A state title was in the back of our minds coming into the finals," Rachel Cobert added. "Everyone was telling us before we left for state to bring home a trophy – no pressure, I know – and we did it. Finishing behind only one other team in the state – and they're the defending state champs – is nothing to sneeze at."
Neither were the performances the Panthers turned in throughout the day. In addition to the two state titles, the 1,600 relay team of Courtney Cobert, Paige Rus, Corrie Reiley and Rachel Cobert took second place. Peyton Rus added a third in the 200, as did the 800 relay team of the Cobert and Rus sisters.
"I'm just so overwhelmed right now," said a choked-up coach Don Robinson, who led the Panthers to a runner-up trophy in 2000. "Our motto all year has been 'Giving all it seems to me, is not so far from victory.' The girls bought in, stayed focused and competed – I mean, really competed – all the way to the end. I couldn't be prouder."
It all came down to the final event of the meet, the 1,600 relay. After Peyton Rus tightened things up with in the 200, E-P had 48 points and sat in third place behind Aurora Christian (52) and Moweaqua Central A&M (50). With Aurora Christian not in that final event, the team race came came down to whether or not the Panthers could beat A&M by at least two points in the 1,600 relay.
Courtney Cobert and Paige Rus got the baton to Corrie Reiley in first place, and Reiley held the lead for about 300 meters. She handed off to Rachel Cobert in fourth, and Cobert made up ground, passing every team but A&M. In the final 100 meters, it looked as if Cobert would track down A&M anchor Kaitlyn Corzine; a 1-2 finish with E-P winning would have meant a tie for the team title.
But Corzine held on as A&M won 4:01.32-4:02.22, and the Panthers were content to settle for second in the race and the team standings. A&M successfully defended its state title, scoring 60 points; Aurora Christian was third (52).
"I didn't think at all that we'd be bringing home a trophy," Courtney Cobert said. "We had no idea that we'd be able to accomplish something like that, and it just shows that anything can happen."
"It's so surreal to be holding that trophy and getting our pictures taken with it … and we get to take it home," Corrie Reiley added. "We won a trophy in middle school, but high school always seemed so much tougher and more competitive. This is an everlasting feeling that will never stop, and I'll remember it forever."
Paige Rus was back at state for the third straight year, and returned to the triple jump finals after placing fourth a year ago. Her leap of 36 feet, 9 1/2 inches carried over from prelims, and the new school record and personal best was nearly 2 inches better than runner-up Megan Reed of Cambridge (36-7 3/4).
"Last year, when I got fourth, I wondered how I was going to do any better than that as a senior," said Rus, who also took fourth in the high jump (a personal best 5-4). "I was scared all year that I wouldn't be able to top that. To come down here and actually win … I don't know how to say how much it means to me."
Rachel Cobert improved three spots from her No. 9 seed entering finals, placing sixth with a jump of 35-1 1/2. It meant valuable team points that turned out to be important later.
The 400 relay also set a school record, blazing to a 49.20 to dominate the field. The Panthers beat runner-up Aurora Christian (49.71) by a half-second, and it didn't even seem that close to the naked eye.
"I never imagined we'd get the baton to my sister [on the anchor leg] with such a big lead," leadoff runner Courtney Cobert said. "The first handoff was pretty even, then Peyton moved up the stagger. When Heather got that second handoff, we were so far ahead that I knew we had it won."
After killing her 100 split in the 400 relay, Peyton Rus came back in the penultimate event and rolled to third in the 200. Her time of 26.04 was 3-tenths of a second behind winner Chelsea Miller of Sesser-Valier, and really put the Panthers in position to challenge for the team title in that final relay.
"I love running the 200, and that's the best I've ever felt in that race," said Rus, who also took sixth in the long jump (16-10 3/4). "I knew I came in seeded fourth, and I made an adjustment to my takeoff out of the blocks, and I came out a lot stronger. After that, it was just running as hard as I could, giving my best effort – like all my teammates were – to get some points for my team; it's the best I've ever felt in that race."
The 800 relay (1:44.03) and 1,600 relay also set new school records, with the Cobert sisters running all three, Courtney as the leadoff and Rachel as the anchor.
"I'm so grateful to these girls and so thankful to have them out there with me," Rachel Cobert said. "They really make me look good when they get me the baton in the lead, and all I have to do is finish strong. To be able to do all this with my sister, my friends, really my extended family, that just makes this all so much better."
And here's something that will keep opposing coaches up at night: All four runners in the state-champion 400 relay return next year, and three of the four runners in the 800 and 1,600 relays also come back.
"It's kind of scary to think about next year, and if we'll be able to do something like this again," Peyton Rus said. "This is the perfect ending to a great freshman year; first it was volleyball, then basketball, and now a second-place track trophy. I couldn't ask for anything better, and I know the other girls all feel the same way."
Erie-Prophetstown finalist finishes
Paige Rus, 1st in triple jump
Courtney Cobert, Peyton Rus, Heather Strike & Rachel Cobert, 1st in 400 relay
Courtney Cobert, Paige Rus, Corrie Reiley & Rachel Cobert, 2nd in 1,600 relay
Peyton Rus, 3rd in 200
Courtney Cobert, Peyton Rus, Paige Rus & Rachel Cobert, 3rd in 800 relay
Paige Rus, 4th in high jump
Rachel Cobert, 6th in triple jump
Peyton Rus, 6th in long jump
Corrie Reiley, Breanna Jensen, Kassi Henrekin & Brooke Remley, 10th in 3,200 relay