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Dixon senior chooses relays over individual glory

Dixon senior Alex LaMendola has battled through nagging hamstring injuries the past 
two seasons, but will finish his high school career by running a pair of relays at this 
weekend's 2A state track meet in Charleston.
Dixon senior Alex LaMendola has battled through nagging hamstring injuries the past two seasons, but will finish his high school career by running a pair of relays at this weekend's 2A state track meet in Charleston.

To go through what Alex LaMendola has endured the past two track seasons would cause many athletes to question their desire – and misfortune. Many would probably just flat-out quit.

But the Dixon senior wasn't about to let nagging injuries stop him from getting back to Charleston.

After pulling his left hamstring twice last season, then dealing with injuries to both hamstrings this spring, LaMendola will finish his high school career on the blue track at Eastern Illinois University's O'Brien Stadium – a place where he already has some pretty good memories.

"What a way to go out," Dixon track coach Bruce Luther said. "It's a great reward for all six of our seniors who are going down. There's no better way to end their careers."

LaMendola already has experience at O'Brien. As a sophomore in 2012, he was part of the Dukes' 1,600 relay team that broke the school record in prelims with a time of 3:22.64, only to break it again a day later in the finals with a 3:22.35.

This year, finally healthy again the past few weeks, LaMendola inked his name in the school record book again, this time running a leg on the 3,200 relay team that broke the 28-year-old school record with a time of 8:01.57 at the Sterling Night Relays back on May 2.

Twelve months ago, LaMendola might not have believed such a thing was possible. After fighting back from his first pulled left hamstring, he aggravated the injury at the NIB-12 Meet last May, ending his season in disappointment and uncertainty.

"Every day I didn't run, I thought, 'Can I still do this?'" LaMendola said. "I just had to keep it in my head that I could, that I needed to come back and do it all again, and that kept me going.

"There were times when I wanted to sit on the couch and not do it anymore, but once you get it in your head that you can do it, and that you will do it, you can't quit on it. I just found a way to get into the right mindset."

LaMendola was a big loss for the Dukes last season. LaMendola started his career as a sprinter his freshmen year, then slowly moved to longer distances the next two seasons. He also competed in the jumps, and qualified for the indoor state meet earlier this spring in the 60, 400, 800 relay, 1,600 relay and 3,200 relay.

"As a freshman, I never wanted to go any higher than the 100 and 200," LaMendola said. "I ran the 400 as a sophomore, and didn't like it at first; same thing when I started running the 800 as a junior. But my times got better and better, and I could see them going down, and the 400 and 800 have become my favorite races now."

The biggest attribute he's shown in his final season is one he wasn't sure he possessed.

Turns out LaMendola is a natural leader for his teammates, something he didn't know about himself before the coaches made him captain at the start of the spring.

"Before, I was always the guy to fade into the background, just do my own thing while the other guys took the lead," LaMendola said. "But I was honored when the coaches made me captain, and I realized I had to do more than just push myself; I had to push my teammates, too.

"I've really grown into that leadership role, and I love it now."

While the vocal part of being a leader took some time to get used to, the example LaMendola has set all season long is just part of his personality.

Luther, a friend of the family who has known LaMendola since he was "this high" while putting his hand below his knee, cites the senior's recent decision at the 2A Burlington Central Sectional as the perfect example of the senior's commitment to team over himself.

"At the sectional meet, he had the opportunity to run the open 400, and probably get down to state as an individual," Luther said. "But he decided he wanted to help the 800 relay qualify instead, so he passed up the 400. It didn't work out for us, but he was willing to put the team ahead of himself. That's just the kind of kid he is.

"He has shown such great character and personality through everything, and I'm not as proud of him as his parents, but after them, I'm as proud of him as anybody else."

That goes for the other five seniors who will be making the trek downstate along with LaMendola. As the first 4-year class to go through the track program since Luther took over as head coach in 2011, he knows his emotions will run high.

"This is really special for me," he said, "and I'm sure I'm going to get a little choked up and teary-eyed as we go through the weekend."

LaMendola, who doesn't regret his decision to run the relay instead of the open 400 – knows his emotions will be flowing as well. Having been to state before, he's ready for the nerves and adrenaline and excitement of sitting in the tent at the end of the track and waiting for his events to be called.

But it's the larger picture he's more concerned with this time around. While he plans on continuing his track career at Augustana College for the next 4 years, he's ready to enjoy his final high school track meet to the fullest extent.

"I'm going to soak up the atmosphere as much as I can," LaMendola said. "All that other stuff – making the finals, winning a medal – that's just a nice side bonus. The experience is what it's all about, and I'm happy to get another chance at it … and I'm going to make the most of it."

LaMendola file

School: Dixon

Year: Senior

Sports: Track (4 years), football (3 years), cross country (1 year)

Family: Parents Sherry and Jason, sister Alyssa (sophomore at DHS)

FYI: Went to state with 1,600 relay as sophomore in 2012, and was part of school-record runs in both prelims (3:22.64) and finals (3:22.35). … Earned 3rd-place medal that year. … Part of school record in 3,200 relay at Night Relays on May 2 (8:01.57), breaking record from 1986. … Plans to run track in college at Augustana, where he plans to major in physical therapy.

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