Popek runs down MDH track honors
MINOOKA — For the third straight year this year, the Minooka track 4X800 team qualified for the state competition down at Eastern Illinois University. The one constant in all three of those years? Dan Popek, who helped the relay team to a state title in 2011 and a fifth place finish this past season. This, along with many other reasons, is the reason why Popek has been named the Morris Daily Herald's Male Track Performer for the 2012 track and field season.
"It's pretty awesome to win," Popek said. "I felt like I had a good season, so to win the award is pretty nice."
"He deserves it," track head coach Joe Urbelis added. "He works hard and is a good kid."
As one of the few seniors for the Minooka program, Popek came in with a lot of pressure on his shoulders to lead the Indians to even more success than the previous year.
Minooka had some added motivation this year as well, as this was the last time Urbelis would be the man in charge for the Indians. The long-time coach was going to retire after 22 years of coaching in Minooka.
"I think there was some motivation to perform for me," Urbelis said. "But mostly it was building off last season. We had that championship four-by-eight team and that helped a lot because it helped the kids realize what it's like to win a state title."
"It was good for us to perform well in his last season," Popek added of Urbelis. "He was a great coach and it was really cool to have him around. He was really funny in his last year, as well."
While Popek continued to run in the 4X800 relay team, he also started running the 800m dash for the Indians, something he hadn't done until this year. With his cross country roots, though, he was an obvious fill-in for the graduated Joe McCasey.
"Joe was my inspiration last year," Popek said of McCasey. "I tried to work as hard as he does coming into this season."
Popek simply dominated the competition all year, piling up four regular season wins in the 800m run as well as two second-place finishes. His relay team also ran through the competition, piling up win after win in the regular season.
His biggest day, however, came at the Naperville North Sectional. With spots to head down to state on the line, Popek came up big, winning both the 800m run and the 4X800 relay, securing two of the seven spots cliched by Indians that night. It also helped win Minooka its first-ever sectional title, edging out Neuqua Valley by two points for the title.
"I really didn't expect to win the four by eight," Popek said. "I just wanted to qualify for it. In the 800 there wasn't much competition. I just stuck with the other runners and then passed them at the end. Overall it was a really great night."
"We knew we were going to be one of the top teams, but we never expected to win the whole thing," Urbelis added. "Everything just worked out for us."
After the great sectional performance, Popek went down to state, where he finished fifth in both of his events, good enough to place at state and come home with a medal. Minooka finished tied for 11th overall, which was a good showing for a program on the rise.
"It was cool to get down to state again," Popek said. "I knew what to expect so I wasn't as nervous. I knew how to handle everything down there. It was a great experience."
Overall on the season, the Indians accomplished two of their three goals in winning the Southwest Prairie Conference title and a sectional championship, and were only six spots away at the state competition from completing all three goals set in the preseason. For Popek, he couldn't have ended his career any better.
Now that Popek is done with his high school career, the MCHS graduate will continue his running career at Augustana College in Rock Island, where he plans to run both cross country and track for the Vikings.
"Augustana is really nice," Popek said. "Every time I talk to someone up there they throw in a good word about it."
Overall, Popek leaves a legacy behind that will be tough to follow for the future Indians coming up.
"I hope I've set a good example for the other kids coming up," Popek said. "I like to think that they look up to me. I hope they see me doing something good and want to do it as well. It helps all of us out in the end."