It didn’t take much time running cross-country for La Grange Park’s Jack Keelan to be marked for greatness in the sport. As a freshman at St. Ignatius, he placed in the very first meet he ever ran. By the next year, 2010, he was the Wolfpack’s best runner, posting the best time ever in the history of Illinois 3A’s state meet by a sophomore, and was running more stellar times in the spring.
But in the fall of 2011, despite an otherwise excellent season, in an absolute stunner, Keelan failed to qualify for states after an uncharacteristically mediocre performance in a sectional against a surprisingly tough field. (He chalks the off-day up to hard schoolwork at the time.)
“It was a great shock and an incredible disappointment,” said Wolfpack coach Ed Ernst. “People all over the place were just shaking their heads at this puzzle.”
The puzzle has been solved.
On Saturday, the senior Keelan completed his comeback to secure his place as the fastest high-school cross-country runner in all of Illinois, running the three-mile Peoria course in 14:05—just over four and a half minutes per mile—claiming the Illinois 3A state title. (No one in 1A or 2A ran any faster.)
“There was definitely motivation,” Keelan said. “I remember walking around after sectionals [last year] and saying to myself, I’m coming back here next year and I’m going to deliver.”
A week earlier, he had his revenge in style, winning that sectional meet that knocked him out in 2011, too—having taken the ACT earlier that day, the Sun-Times reported (so much for schoolwork stress).
Keelan grew up in La Grange Park and attended St. Francis Xavier. His first love was soccer, and he only tried cross-country as a second sport when he started at St. Ignatius.
Soon, he was persuaded that his athletic future lay on the track, and moved to running full-time, year-round. He trains around the Lyons Township area—running the Salt Creek trail, or on 47th Street through La Grange and Western Springs, or around Graue Mill in Oak Brook or Katherine Legge in Hinsdale.
After his 2011 slip, he completely rededicated himself, Ernst said.
“There really was a great deal of resolve on his part,” the coach praised. “He came back in the spring [of 2012] and just ran some phenomenal time, national-class times.
“People who knew, knew that he would be a big player in [this year’s] races.. I have a sense that even among the crowd at the state meet, even among the coaches and all the other runners, people knew about what had happened to Jack and really admired how he had come back from this kind of adversity.”
On Saturday, he cleared the finish line nine seconds ahead of his closest competitor (Quentin Shaffer of Mt. Prospect), and, he said, went into a 45-minute dehydration-fueled haze.
“Coming back, I was thinking, it’s really cool,” said Keelan. “That was the goal since sophomore year, and to finally accomplish it is really something special.”
He’s still choosing a college; in the more immediate future, he’ll be running in qualifiers for the NikeCrossNationals and the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships later this month.
“I’m still hungry,” Keelan declared.