PEORIA – Both Makaley Velazquez and Megan Grady were worried. And rightfully so.
The former, a Rock Falls sophomore running in her second state meet Saturday morning at Detweiller Park – her first as an individual – was worried her cheering section might not make the starting gun.
The latter, Amboy freshman Megan Grady, was in tears, downright overwhelmed by the big stage.
On their way down Illinois Route 40, Velazquez’s family saw a sedan resting on its passenger side, the roof facing the road from about 10 feet beyond the ditch it had rolled through.
Without second thought, they stopped.
“We didn’t blink an eye at it,” Velazquez’s mom, Katie Hoover, said.
“I was scared they weren’t going to make it because of that car accident,” Velazquez said. “But they really care about people. That was so nice of them.”
Meanwhile, in Peoria, Velazquez showed that same sort of compassion to Grady, giving her a hug before the race’s scheduled start – more on that below.
“When she’s hurt, I’m hurt,” Velazquez said. “Last year, I was a mess, and this year I told her it would be fine.”
Grady placed 35th with a time of 18:40. Velazquez was 63rd in 19:15.
St. Anthony freshman Anna Sophia Keller, yet to lose a state meet through junior high, won the title by 45 seconds over runner-up Kelsey Hildreth of Byron.
She and 2A champ Mailin Struck, a German exchange student at Riverside-Brookfield, had the fastest girls times on the day at 16:35, 8 seconds faster than 3A champ Mimi Smith of New Trier.
With her head bouncing from side to side, Keller tore up the incline to the finish line. Her mantra was ironic.
“I just always think that there’s somebody right behind me,” Keller said. “I’m always ready for the unexpected, so I just go so hard at the end, especially.”
Grady left Peoria with so much more than a near-all-state time.
“Makaley just really helped me. She’s such a good friend,” Grady said. “I didn’t know that cross country was going to be this social, and that I’d love all these people I’m competing against.”
It’s Dutch-door action. After cutting her teeth with her fellow Rockets last year, Velazquez found a new team in Stall 6 on Saturday morning.
“I felt like that in 10 minutes – however long we were there. Thirty minutes? – that they were like my team,” Velazquez said. “We talked about everything. It was pretty cool.”
The love came from all angles. Seeing Grady upset, Aurora Central Catholic alternate Fatima Delgadillo asked fellow Amboy freshman Erin Hosto what her friend’s name was.
“Megan,” Hosto replied.
“Well, I’m going to cheer for Megan today,” Delgadillo said.
At 8:40 a.m., Amboy graduate and three-sport star Tyson Powers tweeted, "Taking Grady today in the 1A girls!! Have watched my neighbor work hard for this one!"
But the love began long before that. As Hosto described it, “the entire city of Amboy” greeted Grady outside her house when she let the dog out at 5 a.m.
Upon departure, Grady noticed her name on the Shell station sign. Minutes later, she got a fire truck escort through the town of Sublette.
“It was 5 in the morning, I was crying, and it was amazing,” Grady said. “I don’t think I could go to school anywhere else. I just love Amboy. They showed me love, and I love them so much.”
Afterward, she posed for dozens of photos and shared a laugh with Newman coach Val Gassman.
“She’s just so supportive, and the whole rivalry thing between Amboy and Newman, it doesn’t apply in cross country,” Grady said. “We just love each other so much.
“Ending the season, it was so sad. But I know I’ve got 3 more years to be with these people. And today, I wanted to make as many memories as I could.”