The 2021 4×400 meter relay WSC Gold Conference champions (left to right): J’Lynn Gay, Jaloni Johnson, Javon Johnson and Kadher Kessougni. | Photo provided

It was a season like no other for the Proviso East High School Boys Track and Field team.

Like all other district sports teams, they had to sit out most of their 2020 season, and the 2021 season was truncated. The team only had eight runners, significantly less than the average of 25 to 30 runners the team would field in any other year.

But that didn’t stop them from racking up a few regional accomplishments. Four runners earned first-place finishes at the West Suburban Conference 4×400-meter relay race and one of those runners made it to state. Marc Jones, the head coach for Proviso East’s Boys Cross Country and Track, said that he was impressed with the runners’ dedication.

J’Lyn Gay, of Maywood, and Kadher Kessougni, of Forest Park, graduated this spring. Jaloni Johnson, of Forest Park, will be a junior this fall, while his older brother, Javon Johnson, also of Forest Park, will be a senior.

All four played other sports while doing track. The Johnson brothers both play basketball while Kessougni played soccer and Gay played football. They said that they joined the track team because it was a good way to stay in shape.

“If you’re doing any sport, track helps you out with endurance, speed and flexibility,” Javon Johnson said. “Track is central to my body.”

Jaloni Johnson added that seeing his older brother run track made him curious enough to try it.

Jones said that, normally, the track season starts on the week of Martin Luther King Day, but, with the pandemic restrictions, the 2021 track season didn’t kick off until April 13.

Another issue was that, because of the pandemic restrictions, they couldn’t do as much training.

Jones said that, once the season started, they did regular temperature checks and asked students a range of questions about possible COVID-19 symptoms. Everyone wore masks and hand sanitizer was readily available.

Jones said that none of the runners tested positive for the virus, and the runners and the school staff all got vaccinated

The runners said that returning to sports after months without having a chance to practice was challenging, and so was the shortened season, the small team and the fact that all sports had their seasons in the final three months of the school year. The athletes also said that it was strange to race without fans in the stands and while wearing masks, but they added that things worked out well in the end.

“The coaches always pushed us to do better every day,” Kessougni said. “That played a big part in what we can do as a team.”

“Yeah, it’s different, definitely a rushed and a difficult year, but I got to build new friendships with new teammates, and it was a fun experience,” Jovon said.

“This was a good experience for me, meeting new people, forming new friendships,” Jaloni said. “And it’s definitely something different, instead of just basketball.”

All four runners said they were impressed with how fast the runners from the other schools were.

Kessougni was the only one of the four who wound up taking part in the state championship. While he got 20th place, he said he was glad to make it that far.

“The fact that this happened this year amazed me, because I didn’t expect to be going downstate this year,” he reflected.

The Johnson brothers said that they intend to keep doing track and that they look forward to a more normal season.

Gay, who is going to Ellsworth Community College in Iowa on a football scholarship, said that he would like to keep doing track, if he can commit to the sport along with other commitments. Kessougni, who is going to Bradley University in Peoria said he is keeping his options open.

Jones said that, while East track athletics is no stranger to conference championships and state competitions, he said his athletes over-achieved this year, particularly amid all of the pandemic challenges.

“I’m really proud of our student-athletes district-wide, because of the work and commitment they put in this year,” he said. “The best I expected from this season was just to have fun, because we had such a short season.”