If Rock Falls senior Brayden Hamblen breaks 9 minutes in the 3,200 and adds 2A state titles in that event and the 1,600 to the 1A cross country title he already won last fall, would he be considered the best distance runner ever to come out of northwest Illinois?
“My feeling is that Dan Chenoweth of Geneseo is the best in our area,” said Dixon coach and former distance running standout Kel Bond. “Dan went under 9:00 three times and 14:24 in cross country on a day with worse conditions that Brayden [14:23] ran into. He also ran 4:13 for the 1,600.”
However, one advantage Chenoweth had over Hamblen was being able to compete against future Olympic medalist Evan Jager and nationally elite Chris Derrick. Chasing those two at the IHSA cross country meet and in the 3,200 meters in track undoubtedly helped Chenoweth to better times.
But, as Bond pointed out, Chenoweth ran under 9 minutes by himself at the Geneseo Invite.
“I think Brayden is better than Chenoweth,” longtime area track coach Tom DePasquale said. “Chenoweth is more long distance. Brayden can run fast and has that third gear. Besides distances, he could be Rock Falls’ best hurdler or sprinter.”
With the state meet 6 weeks away, Hamblen has plenty of time to improve on his 9:11 PR set at Arcadia.
“I don’t know where his bottom [time] is. Until he goes downstate, who knows what he’ll run,” DePasquale said. “Maybe we’ll find out more at Palatine this week. He needs quality competition to get better.”
Newman coach Andy Accardi mentions Dorian Ulrey of Riverdale as another possibility.
“In Class A, he was never pushed,” Accardi said. “Maybe if he was, he could have broken 4 minutes in the 1,600.”
Ulrey’s claim to fame was running a 4:09 to win the 1,600 downstate and besting anything done in the entire state, including the 4:11 put up by Jager.
On a personal note, I recall covering that meet and asking a coach from a well-known Class AA school about a small-school kid like Ulrey whipping everyone in the larger class. His response was to downplay Ulrey’s achievement like it didn’t exist.
Ulrey was as good of a runner that I’ve seen from this area in terms of the 1-mile run, competiveness, and success after high school. But, for the sake of this argument, he does not have the same pedigree as Chenoweth or Hamblen in cross country or the 3,200 run.
Jason Bill of Bureau Valley also gave a boost to the prowess of small-school running in the Three Rivers with a state title in the 1,600 and runner-up in cross country as a senior. He placed 3 years in track and twice in cross country, besides distinguishing himself at Hamblen’s future college, the University of Illinois.
Mike Sullivan of Sterling mentioned another small-school runner from a school that no longer exists.
“We hosted a district [today’s version of the sectional] cross country meet, and this kid from Mount Morris named Jim Buell blew the field away,” Sullivan said.
Buell went on to place third at the 1971 one-class state meet, which was won by the legendary Craig Virgin. Buell was fourth in the 3,200 that spring, a remarkable double considering the level of competition.
For the record, Buell wasn’t even the best distance runner in Ogle County. That honor belongs to Craig Young of Stillman Valley, who as a sophomore was third in the 2-mile to a record-setting Virgin in 1973.
Unfortunately, Young’s potential was never fully realized. After running 14:13 as a junior to place third downstate in cross country and coming back to grab second in the 2-mile in track (both still one class), he didn’t go out for cross country his senior year, citing personal issues.
His time as a junior was better than anything run at the IHSA meet that next fall. Had he continued to progress, Young may have been the measuring stick for runners from this part of the state.
“As far as Hamblen goes, nobody in the Sterling or Dixon area jumps out that has better times,” Sullivan says. “And we had a lot of good runners come through Sterling.”
For example, Pat Cross ran 4:15 and 9:14, and Pat Fortney was at 4:22 and 9:27.
“Pat Fortney tells me the difference between Brayden and other runners was that he has speed,” DePasquale said.
Like Virgin, Buell and Young, both were products of the 70s, as was Larry Schuldt of Rock Falls, whose school records are under assault by Hamblen.
“The 1970s were something,” DePasquale said. “There were so many good runners all over the state. We don’t seem to have as many of those type of kids anymore.”
Going back farther, Sterling had the 1935 state mile champion in Charles Hussung. Hussung ran 4:29, a school record that lasted an incredible 34 years at a school known for its track heritage.
Though they have won state titles in cross country, neither Dixon or Newman have had that one great runner. It was more of a team effort, though Simon Thorpe of Dixon distinguished himself as a four-time all-stater in cross country and a second-place finisher in the 3,200 his senior year, this after fighting injuries. And Chris Ahlers of Newman is fresh off the school record in the 1,600 run.
“What I do know is Brayden has set himself in a class of runner we have not seen in long time,” Bond said.